Wednesday, 13 April 2016

What does an ambivalent mood do to your problem-solving skills?

Psychologists have got a pretty good picture of how we’re influenced by the big emotional states. Feeling positive encourages an explorative cognitive style that is risk-tolerant and well suited to the open aspects of creativity, whereas negative emotions make us sensitive to threat and prone to vigilant, focused thinking. But what happens when our emotional states are a mix of the two – when we’re in an ambivalent mood? Appropriately, research to date has been inconsistent, with some work suggesting it sharpens our minds, others that it distracts us. In a new paper in Journal of Applied Psychology researchers at the University of Virginia have tidied up the mixed findings about mixed feelings.

Cristiano Guarana and Morela Hernandez lay out why feeling ambivalent should facilitate decision-making: it sends a strong signal that a situation is complex, and that simple solutions are likely to be unsatisfactory. Consistent with this, past research, including their own, has shown ambivalence can lead to more cognitive flexibility and holistic, comprehensive solutions. But other research has linked ambivalence with poor decision-making. How can we reconcile these findings?

Guarana and Hernandez’s theory is that in a real-life situation it’s not always clear where your emotional states arrive from, and if you feel ambivalent, but haven’t bottomed out why, you won’t give that complex situation the attention it needs… and worse, you could attribute your feelings to a peripheral situation that will needlessly suck up your attention. For ambivalence to be cognitively advantageous, the state must be tied to its source.

The researchers conducted four experiments to test their explanation, with the final one combining all the clever bits of design into one setup. For this final study, the researchers first prompted their two hundred participants (all were employees from a range of organizations, on average 45 years old and two thirds were women) to experience feelings of ambivalence by asking them to write a short passage on a personal experience that involved either indifference or ambivalence. Next, the researchers warned half of the participants that the upcoming task could produce mixed reactions, priming them to recognise it as a source of ambivalence. The idea was that these participants would see the upcoming task as the source of their ambivalent feelings.

The main task involved participants reading a scenario about a fraudulent drug trial in which the researcher added made-up data points so he could release the drug to market. The participants then had to judge based on this limited information what happened next: whether they thought it was more likely that the drug was (a) withdrawn from the market, or (b) that it was withdrawn from the market after killing and injuring patients.

This is a classic decision-making conjunction problem: the conjunction of two events is never more likely than either alone, but superficial thinking can lead us to assume the more specific is more likely. In fact, the participants gave the wrong answer more often than right – unless they had been primed to see the test as a source of their ambivalent feelings, in which case they made the correct choice in two out of three instances.

Results from a supplementary task showed how participants thought about the scenario differently when they had been primed to see it as a source of their ambivalent feelings. After responding to the scenario, participants completed word fragments, e.g. DIS___, by writing in the end of words. Some of these fragments could potentially form words related to the drug-trial scenario (e.g. DISEASE). When participants completed the word fragments in this way, this was taken as a sign that they were more sensitive to the concepts in the scenario.

Participants in the priming condition produced more scenario-related words, and the more that they did this, the more likely it was that they also reached the correct solution. This is consistent with the idea that the primed participants tied their ambivalent feelings to the drug trial scenario, and that this encouraged them to pay more attention to it. Interestingly, Guarana and Hernandez showed this only applied to participants scoring low on a measure of self-control: people inclined to skirt difficult issues are the ones to benefit from recognising their ambivalence about a situation.

The message is clear: when you’re feeling a muss of conflicted feelings, take a step back and identify where that message is coming from. Do so, and you authorise your mind to attend to it in the best possible way.


Identified Ambivalence: When Cognitive Conflicts Can Help Individuals Overcome Cognitive Traps. Guarana, Cristiano L.; Hernandez, Morela Journal of Applied Psychology, Mar 10 , 2016.

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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