How to Be Ambivalent

“You can use ambivalence as a shield against the fear of rejection,” says Taly Reich, an associate professor of marketing at Yale. If you want something, like a promotion at work, say, you’ll be faced with a moment where you must decide whether to act and risk rejection or do nothing and avoid it. Reich recently published research showing that people who cultivate ambivalence are more likely to act.

In one of seven experiments, Reich asked 200 research subjects to “imagine that you just met someone who looks a lot like your celebrity crush. You are considering asking that person out on a date.” Half the group were told to write down three positive things about dating a celebrity look-alike. The other half were instructed to write one positive and two negative things (the various downsides included feeling less attractive than your partner). Those who experienced a commingling of positives and negatives reported more ambivalence and, subsequently, a greater willingness to ask for a date. Ambivalence can enhance what psychologists call “approach motivation.”

Start by creating a list of pros and cons, Reich says. Keep it short: one pro and two cons. You can write more if you want, but keep the pro-con ratio the same, and don’t let a long list distract you. “It’s really important that the pros and cons are self-generated,” Reich says. Don’t ask your spouse or your mom to tell you why asking for a raise might not be a good idea. You don’t need weeks to ruminate; a pros-and-cons list made in minutes can be effective. But it’s crucial that ambivalence does not feel like indifference or neutrality. The goal is to feel two opposed states deeply and simultaneously.

Psychologists like to talk about prevention- and promotion-focused people. Prevention people try to avoid loss: They’re cautious; they don’t want to make errors. Promotion people strive for accomplishments and see potential threats, including rejection, as challenges. Reich has become something of an evangelist for ambivalence in part because she thinks it can motivate people to be less fearful and more proactive. “We’re hoping to help prevention people use ambivalence to become promotion people,” she says.

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