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What is Ambivalence?

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  • Written By: Jessica Seminara
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2016
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Ambivalence is generally defined as having feelings that are mixed or uncertain. More specifically, the term can refer to having both positive and negative feelings. In addition, it is used in psychology to describe simultaneous positive and negative feelings toward the same object, which could be a person, thing, or concept. The causes of ambivalence are varied, as are the ways of handling conflicting emotions and ideas.

Many people experience ambivalence as it is generally defined. Both minor events — such as watching television — and major events — such as seeing a child go off to college — can produce mixed feelings. Someone might be impressed by the special effects used in an episode of a TV program, but also find the plot lacking in originality. Parents of college freshmen may feel both pride at their son or daughter's academic achievement, and worry about how he or she will adjust to college life.

In addition to major and minor life events, unfulfilled longings or desires, nostalgia, and poignant moments can cause mixed feelings. Someone with a lifelong dream of becoming a famous rock musician may enjoy composing songs and performing them at local venues. When that person fails to achieve the fame he or she seeks, however, the positive feelings of making music may become mixed with negative feelings of frustration or resignation.

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As opposed to its common usage, people experiencing ambivalence as defined by psychology are often unaware of having more than one set of feelings for the same object. One set of feelings is repressed in the subconscious, allowing the remaining positive or negative set of feelings to dominate. For example, a bachelor who is unhappy about his marital status may consciously experience only happiness at his younger brother's wedding, but may subconsciously have feelings of sadness or envy as well. Although everyone may occasionally feel this type of ambivalence, it is a common feature in many psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, and phobias.

A number of psychological theories focus on how individuals handle ambivalence and modify decisions and behavior because of it. The theory of cognitive dissonance, first introduced by Leon Festinger, proposes that people are driven to reduce or resolve dissonance, which arises when conflicting ideas exist about the same subject. Dissonance is often induced by the perception of a mismatch between attitudes and behavior. For example, a person might believe herself to be charitable, but refuse to give money to a beggar. In order to resolve the dissonance, she will either change her attitude or subsequent behavior, or try to justify to herself why she refused to be charitable in this particular case.

Another psychological theory that relates to how people process ambivalence is Kurt Lewin's analysis of patterns of conflict resolution in response to desirable and undesirable goals. The patterns Lewin recognized include approach-approach, where two desirable goals are in conflict; avoidance-avoidance, where two undesirable goals are in conflict; and approach-avoidance, where the same goal has both desirable and undesirable qualities. The last pattern is typical of conflict resolution when a subject is experiencing ambivalence.

Despite the unpleasant feelings it can produce, there is evidence that dealing with ambivalence can also have beneficial effects. The ability to tolerate mixed feelings and cognitive dissonance seems to encourage creative abilities and also increases resilience, an adaptive response to stress. Many factors can affect a person's ability to tolerate ambivalence, including cultural background, lifestyle complexity, and social status.

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