Why Can’t Some People Make Decisions?

October 27th, 2010 | Sources: Wall Street Journal

Why is it that some people can make life-altering decisions like deciding to get married without hesitation, while others take  hours to decide on trivial matters like whether to buy black or navy blue underwear?

The reason, psychologists tell us, has to do with the amount of ambivalence people have: Do they see the world in black-and-white or in shades of gray?

Although psychologists have just begun to study ambivalence, they already agree that people who tend to be ambivalent in one aspect of their lives tend to be ambivalent in other aspects as well.

It’s unclear why some folks tend to be more ambivalent than others. Personality traits like the need to reach a definitive conclusion for a particular situation tend to drive some towards black-and-white thinking. It also likely that parental influences and cultural aspects play a role. For example, many people in Asian cultures tend to be more comfortable with dualism, the concept that good and bad coexist in all aspects of life from relationships to the workplace. This cultural influence often translates to greater degrees of ambivalence.

Behavioral scientists have shown that ambivalence affects the way people solve problems. Black-and-white thinkers make decisions more quickly but tend to end up in conflict with others more frequently. Ambivalent problem solvers are more capable of feeling empathy and display healthier coping strategies during periods of stress. On the job however, ambivalent employees tend to perform more erratically, consistent with changing feelings about the job.

Though the field of ambivalence research remains in its infancy, there is an evolving consensus that the ability to remain open to different points of view reflects emotional and cognitive maturity: It amounts to “coming to grips with the complexity of the world,” Texas Tech psychologist Jeff Larsen explained to the Wall Street Journal.



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