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Not So Simple To Express Ambivalent Attitudes…

December 10, 2013

By Vincent Pillaud (University of Lausanne), Nicoletta Cavazza (University of Modena-Reggio Emilia), & Fabrizio Butera (University of Lausanne)

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

Laurence J. Peter

Are you ambivalent about something, such as an issue, practice, or policy? If you are, you probably know how it feels to weigh, without final resolution, both the positive and negative aspects in an issue. Ambivalence is a very common experience and everyone feels ambivalent towards some kind of issue. Researchers in psychology have often considered ambivalence to be a weakness–a temporary phase people pass through before reaching certainty. But our research suggests that ambivalence can be strategically displayed to signal a positive social value.

Psychological research suggests individuals holding an ambivalent attitude often exhibit a polarized attitude when they have the opportunity to do so. Such an attitude shift is commonly interpreted as a way for these individuals to feel better, but it may also indicate that individuals are not inclined to express their ambivalence when dealing with others who hold a more clear-cut attitude. Cavazza and Butera (2008) notably showed that respondents who were ambivalent about traffic restrictions as a solution to pollution did not truly change their attitude when being confronted with a majority of people displaying a clear attitude; they simply mirrored the others’ position on the attitude’s core (direct level) but not on other related aspects (indirect level). It is therefore plausible to think that ambivalence could lead individuals to purposely express just a part of their attitude in their answers in order to satisfy the expectations of others when they have to defend a position, leaving the potentially conflicting part unexpressed. Following this reasoning, in this work we formulated two hypotheses. First, individuals should be able to strategically control the extent to which they express ambivalent attitudes as a consequence of self-presentational concerns. Second, displaying an ambivalent attitude could be helpful in achieving a positive self-presentation, as ambivalence can indeed indicate that one has thoughtfully pondered the pros and the cons of an issue. If this is true, then the strategic expression of ambivalence should be only found on debated and controversial attitude objects; the expression of clear-cut attitudes should be prevail on clear and consensual attitude objects.

We used the self-presentation paradigm and tested these two hypotheses in a set of four experiments recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Pillaud, Cavazza & Butera; 2013). This paradigm has been designed to study how individuals strategically modulate the expression of an attitude with self-presentational intentions. It consists of three conditions. First, participants are asked to answer with no specific indication (standard condition). Then, they have to answer the same questions again but depending on the condition, either in order to give a positive image of themselves (self-enhancement condition) or a negative one (self-depreciation condition). Because we were interested in showing that individuals can purposely alter their level of ambivalence as a function of the demands of the environment, we used this paradigm with a within-participant design. Participants thus had to answer three times: the standard condition was always presented first and the two other were presented in a random order. If the attitude score in the self-enhancement condition is significantly different from that in the self-depreciation condition, this means that the respondents know the social norms that regulate the expression of that attitude and they can deliberately adapt their answers to be positively (or negatively) evaluated.

The first two experiments were conducted on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), a controversial issue. Indeed, Séralini and colleagues published in 2012 an article that revealed the potential danger of genetically modified corn on rats, eliciting a crossfire of official and public debates. Our results revealed that participants did indeed alter their level of ambivalence as a function of the self-presentation conditions. They displayed more ambivalence on both the standard condition and the self-enhancement one in comparison with the self-depreciation condition. Furthermore, the level of ambivalence did not vary between the standard condition and the self-enhancement one, sustaining that a high ambivalence level was portrayed by default. Hence, individuals displayed a more ambivalent attitude by default as well as when they tried to present themselves positively as opposed to negatively on GMOs.

We argued that the purpose of displaying ambivalent attitudes is to signal that one has a highly diversified vision of a controversial issue, which turned out to be the case with controversial GMOs. Thus, this should not be the case if an issue is consensual. The third experiment was therefore conducted on a totally consensual attitude object, namely tooth brushing, a truism. Results revealed the reverse pattern of the above experiment: Participants significantly displayed more ambivalence to give a negative image of themselves in comparison with both the standard condition and the self-enhancement one.

Finally, we additionally manipulated the perception of controversy or consensus within the same attitude object: Participants saw a bogus graph demonstrating either that GMOs are not really socially debated, with a majority of cons, or that GMOs are often debated, with an equal number of pros and cons. Results revealed that individuals displayed more ambivalence in the standard and in the self-enhancement condition than in the self-depreciation condition in the controversy condition. Of interest, the opposite was found in the consensus condition (see Figure 1 below).

Fabrizio Data

Figure 1.

Since Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction, expressing ambivalence has been described in negative terms. These four studies, instead, support a new vision of ambivalence as being useful in adapting to different social situations. It appeared that people are able to express ambivalence to give a good image of themselves, especially when dealing with a controversial topic.

Author Information


Vincent Pillaud has recently completed his PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. He is now a post-doc student at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada. His research interests concern attitude expression and social judgment as well as stereotypes, social control, motivation and performance.

CavazzaNicoletta Cavazza is an Associate professor in Social Pychology at the Department of Communication and Economics, University of Modena and Reggio Emilia (Italy). Her current main research interests include attitude change, political psychology, persuasive communication, social aspects of eating. She is Editor-in-Chief of the Italian Journal of Social Psychology.

FabrizioFabrizio Butera is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, as well as Director of the Social Psychology Laboratory. His research interests focus on social influence processes, conflict, and social comparison; in particular, he studies the regulations of conflict that may hinder or favor changes in perceptions, motivations, attitudes, learning and behaviors. He currently is the President of the European Association of Social Psychology.


Cavazza, N., & Butera, F. (2008). Bending without breaking: Examining the role of attitudinal ambivalence in resisting persuasive communication. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38, 1-15.

Pillaud, V., Cavazza, N., & Butera, F. (2013). The social value of being ambivalent: Self-presentational concerns in the expression of attitudinal ambivalence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1139-1151.

Séralini, G. E., Clair, E., Mesnage, R., Gress, S., Defarge, N., Malatesta, M., Hennequin, D., & Spiroux de Vendômois, J. S. (2012). Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 4221-4231.

Image Credit: imagerymajestic, published on 28 June 2012 Stock Photo – image ID: 10089370/

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