I read with great personal interest today’s Wall Street Journal article (in the Personal Journal section), “Why So Many People Can’t Make Decisions.” It was talking about me. No, I wasn’t one of the research subjects being written about. But I could have been.
For much of my adult life, and maybe further back than that, I’ve felt that I’m a procrastinator. Maybe have ADD. Not good with time management. These all sound kind of negative, don’t they? I knew inside of me that I couldn’t make snap decisions very well. And when I had to, for outside reasons, I always doubted myself. I had regrets. I watched other people making decisions and sticking with them, seemingly in spite of all kinds of evidence that would counter their certainty. It didn’t sway them, they had made their decision. What did they have that I didn’t?
Well, it seems that perhaps it was something I had that they didn’t. This ambivalence, this ability to see many shades of gray rather than simply black and white, yes and no, good and bad, is something that not everyone has. Yes, it slows me down. It makes my world more complicated. It means my mind has to be always going. And it has perhaps saved my life.
One of the researchers quoted in the article, Dr. Jeff Larson, called “my” ambivalence, my ability to see these shades of gray, as a “coming to grips with the complexity of the world.” It enables people to “see the world as it really is.” Ambivalence is a “sign of maturity.”
Wow. That seems a far cry from the way things have been presented previously. What are the implications of being ambivalent? Well, for one thing I don’t always have a need to reach a conclusion. Is that good or bad? It depends. I will never forget a radio interview with a gifted young classical musician when I was a teenager myself. They asked him what his own favorite music was, his favorite band, favorite song, whatever. He kept answering “I don’t know,” and the interviewer was persistent. She wanted the answer. Finally, he said, “Why should I pick a favorite, if I can have them all?”
That sentiment has guided me my whole life! But on the other hand, there are downsides. Seeing a decision as a complex interplay of multiple factors – far more of them than most people take into consideration – makes it hard to act quickly, as is often required in business. Movers and shakers are not ambivalent. They tend to be black-and-white thinkers.
One of the most interesting statements in the Journal article was this:
For decades psychologists largely ignored ambivalence because they didn’t think it was meaningful. The way researchers studied attitudes – by asking participants where they fell on a scale ranging from positive to negative – also made it difficult to tease apart who held conflicting opinions from those who were neutral.
My God. The story of my life. My “yes but no” life, so often reduced to an average of “ho hum” irrelevance, when the opposite was true! My high moment of inertia was not being detected because my “system” was not being tested in that axis. Finding the balance point on a positive-negative access doesn’t answer the question of what happens when you move away from that point. With a strongly black-and-white thinking person, one with a very low moment of inertia (sorry but you’re going to have to look this up on your own to see how I’m using it here) between the poles of their belief system, a move even slightly away from the balance point will cause an immediate imbalance, a tilt, a catastrophic failure, a breakdown. Those with a more ambivalent viewpoint, on the other hand, are more adaptable. A move away from the center does not cause them to immediately lose their balance. They’ve got a lot of latitude, a wide comfort range. It takes a much more radical change to throw them off.
So it will be interesting to see where this leads. Since it seems that this is only a recent “discovery” by the psychiatric community, it makes me wonder what in fact they have been looking at all these years, if not things like this. Maybe there’ll be some new books written that will help some of us winnow out the irrelevant factors from the important ones, and get on with our lives. The decision then just becomes, should I buy this book… or that one?