In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Attitudinal Ambivalence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Approaches to Attitudinal Ambivalence
  • Attitudinal Ambivalence Measurement
  • Antecedents
  • Ambivalence toward Social Groups and Response Amplification
  • Functions
  • Applied Work

Psychology Attitudinal Ambivalence
Nicoletta Cavazza, Vincent Pillaud, Fabrizio Butera
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0254


Research on attitudinal ambivalence started in the early 1970s, forty years after the first wave of research on attitudes. Ambivalent attitudes consist of both positive and negative evaluations of the same object. Early approaches proposed different measurement methods, and ambivalence can now be measured either directly (referred to as “felt ambivalence”) or indirectly (referred to as “potential ambivalence”). Because of its duality, ambivalence has been studied in comparison with univalent attitudes—which consist of either positive or negative evaluations of an object—to uncover their specific features, antecedents, and consequences. Relevant research has focused on identifying the prevalence of ambivalent attitudes, and on whether they could stem from particular personality traits or situations. Researchers have found that ambivalent attitudes seem to be widespread and can be held for a long period of time. Their relationship with behaviors has also been widely studied. At the individual level, ambivalence increases response latency when a choice has to be made, extends information processing, can affect attitude stability, and can even lead to discomfort. At the behavioral level, studies have highlighted the moderating role of attitudinal ambivalence on the relationship between attitudes and behavior. A different field of research focuses on its strength to question whether ambivalence leads to more resistance or susceptibility to persuasion and influence. It appears that ambivalent attitudes are pliable and, depending on the context, can either help individuals to be more adaptive or prevent them from arriving at a satisfying conclusion. The role of ambivalent attitudes in interpersonal relationships and self-presentation also highlight some benefits in holding an ambivalent attitude. This article opens by reviewing general overviews to provide a detailed picture of the current state of research. It then presents early approaches to attitudinal ambivalence, and reviews studies that highlight the moderating role of attitudinal ambivalence on the relationship between attitudes and behavior, as well as studies that question whether ambivalence might lead to more resistance or susceptibility to persuasion and influence. The article then focuses on the impact of ambivalence at the individual level. Antecedents of attitudinal ambivalence will be reviewed, as well as its consequences on the individual. The article concludes by presenting research questioning its functions as well as some applied work.

General Overviews

Several literature reviews about attitudinal ambivalence are available, beginning with Jonas, et al. 2000. Among these, many are important because they account for the lively discussions that have taken place in this field. Conner and Sparks 2002 examines the relationship between ambivalence and other features of attitude strength, while antecedents and consequences of attitudinal ambivalence are well reviewed in Conner and Armitage 2008. Ambivalence has been often linked to the activation of an aversive state, and conditions for such a state have also been discussed. On this matter, the reader might consider van Harreveld, et al. 2009; van Harreveld, et al. 2015; and Rothman, et al. 2017. Finally, Schneider and Schwarz 2017 may be helpful in order to better understand methodological aspects.

  • Conner, M., and C. J. Armitage. 2008. Attitudinal ambivalence. In Attitudes and attitude change. Edited by W. Crano and R. Prislin, 261–286. New York: Psychology Press.

    This review starts with the claim that conceiving attitudes as univalent is an oversimplification, as it is very unlikely to endorse a totally positive or negative view of any object. It therefore contradicts the idea of ambivalence as an exceptional state to overcome in some way. The authors provide an overview of conceptual and operational definitions, top-down and bottom-up antecedents, and consequences in terms of attitude stability, pliability, and attitude-behavior relationship.

  • Conner, M., and P. Sparks. 2002. Ambivalence and attitudes. European Review of Social Psychology 12:37–70.

    DOI: 10.1080/14792772143000012

    This chapter in the European Review of Social Psychology provides an overview of the general concept of ambivalence as a dimension of attitude strength. After comparing the various ways in which ambivalence has been defined, the authors review the evidence of its impact on information processing, intention, and behaviors; attitude temporal stability and pliability are also discussed. The classification and comparison among methods for measuring ambivalence is of particular importance.

  • Jonas, K., P. Broemer, and M. Diehl. 2000. Attitudinal ambivalence. European Review of Social Psychology 11:35–74.

    DOI: 10.1080/14792779943000125

    This is the first review of the scientific literature on ambivalence. The authors deal with the origin and the history of the concept and discuss the different operational approaches to measuring ambivalence.

  • Rothman, N. B., M. G. Pratt, L. Rees, and T. J. Vogus. 2017. Understanding the dual nature of ambivalence: Why and when ambivalence leads to good and bad outcomes. Academy of Management Annals 11:33–72.

    DOI: 10.5465/annals.2014.0066

    This review tackles the advantages and disadvantages of ambivalent attitudes. The psychological literature has more frequently addressed ambivalence as a source of discomfort or as a dysfunctional characteristic of attitude. However, a few papers have shown the benefits of holding an ambivalent orientation. This paper tries to reconcile the two sides of ambivalence, building also on empirical evidence from nonpsychological approaches (e.g., management).

  • Schneider, I. K., and N. Schwarz. 2017. Mixed feelings: The case of ambivalence. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 15:39–45.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.05.012

    After a general review of ambivalence research, this short paper focuses on recent methodological advances in ambivalence measurement. It illustrates and discusses the usefulness of the mouse tracking technique in capturing individual response toward ambivalent objects and attempts to reduce ambivalence.

  • van Harreveld, F., H. U. Nohlen, and I. K. Schneider. 2015. The ABC of ambivalence: Affective, behavioral, and cognitive consequences of attitudinal conflict. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 52:285–324.

    DOI: 10.1016/bs.aesp.2015.01.002

    The chapter provides an integrative model of affective, behavioral, and cognitive consequences of ambivalence and the interactions among these factors. It provides evidence that, when the conflicting components of the attitude are simultaneously activated, people experience ambivalence as an aversive state, which results in cognitions and behaviors aimed at resolving or mitigating such a state.

  • van Harreveld, F., J. van der Pligt, and Y. De Liver. 2009. The agony of ambivalence and ways to resolve it: Introducing the MAID model. Personality and Social Psychology Review 13:45–61.

    DOI: 10.1177/1088868308324518

    A highly discussed question in the field of attitudinal ambivalence concerns whether this construct necessarily entails an aversive state and how it differs from cognitive dissonance. This review focuses on this issue. It presents a model describing the conditions and the process whereby ambivalence induces discomfort and motivates individuals to reduce it. The key thesis is that ambivalence is particularly uncomfortable when people have to make a choice.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.