Stanford GSB Research: Ambivalence Helps Us Take Risks


Stanford’s Graduate School of Business recently published an article by Eilene Zimmerman on a paper co-authored by social psychology professor Christian Wheeler and Yale’s Taly Reich that appeared this past April in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Entitled “The Good and Bad of Ambivalence: Desiring Ambivalence Under Outcome Uncertainty,” the paper explores the role ambivalent attitudes play in both protecting and sabotaging one’s hopes in the face of uncertainty. Wheeler and Reich developed six fictitious and real-life scenarios to manipulate people’s ambivalence.

In one study, participants were asked to pretend to be high school seniors who had just applied to their top-choice university. Each participant was given an imaginary number corresponding to their “chance of getting in – 10 percent, 50 percent or 90 percent.” After participants were informed of the outcome of their applications, “they answered questions about their view of the situation and themselves.” According to the results of the study, “those with a 50 percent chance of getting into their top school were also the most ambivalent about it.”

Another study asked participants to imagine “buying their first home,” whose desirable attributes the researchers played up or down. Researchers then surveyed the participants to “measure their ambivalence about the house, the likelihood they would make an offer and what percentage of the asking price they were willing to offer, on a scale that ranged from 50 to 150 percent.” The study found that those who ended up getting the house but harbored ambivalence felt worse than those who had less ambivalence.

According to Wheeler, ambivalence functions “a little like an insurance policy. It’s good to have when you need it, but there’s a cost.” The cost often relates to risk. The article mentions starting salary negotiation as a prime example where risk often pays off. “In a situation like that, someone who has become ambivalent about landing that job might be more likely to take a chance and ask for the salary bump.”

Wheeler concludes, “Ambivalence gives us this emotional hedge, so it might make us willing to take more chances. Depending on the situation, a willingness to take more risks could lead to better results.”


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