Use Your Ambivalence to Make More Ethical Decisions

Being conscious of ambivalence helps decision makers suspend initial judgments, deflect biases, and integrate conflicting material.

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Jim Frazier/theispot.com

Decision makers often want to escape the psychological discomfort of ambivalence by making choices as quickly as possible. This is true even for choices that have an ethical component, including those that can involve potential harm or violations of social norms. Decisions that have moral consequences are often dense and require reconciliation of the conflicting interests of multiple stakeholders, as well as more sustained and systematic consideration.

Studies have shown that individuals experiencing ambivalence don’t always correctly identify what is causing that conflicting feeling of positive and negative emotions. This is a missed opportunity. Being conscious of this state, called identified ambivalence, can lead to more effective decision-making, because recognizing uncomfortable mixed reactions allows decision makers to suspend initial judgments and try to understand what is truly causing their cognitive discomfort. In searching for the source, decision makers often find relevant information they overlooked and are able to more thoroughly integrate pertinent and conflicting messages. This targeted searching process is especially critical when making complex ethical decisions.

In two recent studies, we found that when people understand what’s making them feel ambivalent, they’re spurred to consciously assess the moral aspects of their choices. We found that they subsequently are better able to resist distracting biases and make more ethical decisions.

The Value of Sitting With Ambivalence

Hurried decisions are largely based on automatic, unconscious processing. The brain uses rules of thumb and readily available information to produce a selection that — in a trick of the mind — seems to the decision maker to be conscious and rational. Relying on unconscious processing can interfere with making thorny decisions effectively, which requires weighing pros and cons carefully and with minimal bias.

Identified ambivalence is a good tool because it keeps the unconscious mind from getting trapped by its biases. One type of bias is anchoring, which places undue importance on one piece of information over all others. For example, the initial price of a used car sets the basis for the negotiation; the same happens when negotiating salaries.

Relying on unconscious processing can interfere with making thorny decisions effectively.

Another bias is loss aversion, when the negative emotions of losing something are felt more strongly than the pleasure derived from gaining the same thing. Retailers often use “Flash sale! Today only!” promotions to trigger a consumer’s fear of missing out.

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