Life is full of decision-making and choice. Although sometimes it is easy to know what we want and how we feel about things, often it is not. Sometimes it is hard to decide between two options. Sometimes it’s even hard to determine what we think about a single option. We might both love and hate tasty but sugary chocolate, like and dislike our successful but arrogant colleague, and feel both good and bad about our romantic partner. This is where we start to feel conflicted and ambivalent, and our feelings become mixed, our thoughts conflicted. For me, this is where it gets interesting.

My research is about what happens in these instances where things are not black or white, where people feel torn and are experiencing inner conflict. What are the causes of these experiences? What are the consequences for decision-making? And how do others view us when we are conflicted? These are some of the questions that we examine in my research group.  

First, we look at the causes and consequences of inner conflict within a person – what kind of decisions and topics cause ambivalence? Are some people more ambivalent than others? And can the way options are presented increase or decrease difficulty? We find that people who are high in ambivalence as a personality trait make better decisions than those who have low ambivalence. Our research shows that they are less biased and one-sided in their judgments about other people. Read about it in our paper or this blog post. We now follow up on this work and examine whether these “ambivalents” are also better in other types of decisions. In the past, we have also found that people high in self-control seem to experience less ambivalence. Second, we examine whether presentation influences how difficult a decision is. Some decisions are too close to call, literally! In our work, we show that people experience more choice conflict when choice options are presented close together than when they are far apart. We are extending these findings to people’s judgments and how people think about the options they face. 

Second, we are interested in the role of inner conflict in interpersonal settings: How do we feel when we see someone experiencing conflict? Think about a leader who is faced with both positive and negative sides of an upcoming change – how do their followers perceive them? Are they perceived as wishy-washy? More thoughtful? Are perceivers able to recognize the benefits of ambivalence in others? Our work suggests that people see ambivalent others as indecisive but also thoughtful – depending on what kind of task the person has to perform, this can be interpreted as good or bad. For leaders, ambivalence makes them look more ethical but also less powerful. However, if leaders can shape the right narrative, ambivalence might be a good thing, and people can recognize the value it has. 

If you want to know more about the work we do, or join our research efforts, head over to Publications or Join Us