A recent study by psychologists at the University of Amsterdam looked at the consequences of feeling ambivalent, with interesting implications for belief in conspiracy theories.
We experience ambivalence when we feel both good and bad about something at the same time. Imagine eating an entire tub of ice cream. You know it would be a delightful way to spend five minutes – but you probably also know it’d be pretty bad for you in the long run. That’s ambivalence. It’s a common experience. We all feel conflicting emotions about things at some time or another. But we don’t tend to enjoy the feeling. Psychologists have known for a while that ambivalence is an undesirable state of mind, leading to negative emotions and even, in extreme cases, mental health problems. We habitually seek order and consistency, and to be ambivalent is to experience disorder. When we feel ambivalence we sometimes try to diminish or overcome it by updating our beliefs so we can arrive at a more unequivocal attitude, or simply by ignoring and downplaying the importance of the beliefs.
Alternatively, we can use more round-about strategies to deal with our unwanted emotions. Ambivalence threatens our sense of order, and so to negate it, perhaps we can seek compensatory perceptions of order elsewhere. Doing so won’t affect the original cause of our ambivalence, but it might distract us just enough to put us at ease again – at least temporarily. This is the idea which the researchers set out to examine.
They first needed to induce feelings of ambivalence in their study participants. To do so, the researchers showed people a fake newspaper story reporting a political debate. One group of participants read a version which argued staunchly in favour of a proposed political action, while a second group read a version which contained a more nuanced argument offering both pros and cons of the proposed action. Thus, the former group was made to feel unequivocal about the issue, while the latter group was made to feel ambivalent.
Ambivalence successfully induced, the researchers then looked at people’s reactions to the unpleasant state of mind. Compared to people who read the unequivocal article, people in a state of ambivalence were more likely to see meaningful patterns in random visual static, like the picture to the right. Moreover, they were also more likely to endorse a conspiracy theory. This suggests that both the illusory patterns and the conspiracy theories were serving as forms of compensatory order, allowing people to satisfy the craving for order triggered by the experience of ambivalence.
So what does all this have to do with a tidy desk? For their pièce de résistance, the psychologists ran one final experiment. Having shown that ambivalence triggers compensatory order-seeking, they wanted to show that preemptively affirming order diminishes this need to grasp at illusory patterns and conspiracies. People who took part in the study read the same phony newspaper stories designed to provoke ambivalence. At that point in the experiment, however, the researchers arranged for an error message to appear on the computer screen – of course, in reality it was all part of their devious plan. They apologised to the unwitting participant and told them they would have to complete the experiment at another desk. They led the participant to a desk in total disarray, strewn with pens, crumpled papers and magazines. Then the crucial step of the experiment: the experimenter asked some participants to help tidy the desk and put the mess in order before continuing with the experiment. Those people who got the chance to restore order by tidying the disorganised desk were less likely to see illusory patterns afterwards, while people who weren’t given the opportunity to restore order grasped at patterns just as in the earlier experiment.
In sum, the findings show that ambivalence motivates us to seek order in the environment around us. These experiments focused on just two forms of compensatory order in illusory images and postulated conspiracies, but there are doubtless many other forms of order which we can use to cope with ambivalence. When we have the opportunity to generate order elsewhere – such as by tidying a disorderly desk – we no longer need to seek illusory patterns or conspiracies.
This might seem like a surprising and tenuous finding, but it fits neatly into a growing body of research which suggests that people are especially likely to buy into conspiracy theories when they feel powerless, anxious, or uncertain. Of course, ambivalence differs from powerlessness and uncertainty – you can be certain that ice cream is both delicious and bad for you. But regardless of these subtle distinctions, one appeal of conspiracy theories might be their power to offer compensatory order, control, and certainty by explaining ambiguous and complex events with a neat and orderly story.