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Emotionally Intelligent Decision-Making in an Ambivalent Society

Emotionally Intelligent Decision-Making in an Ambivalent Society

We are inundated with literature and advice on how to be emotionally intelligent leaders, happy at work, show our authentic passions and generally be positive contributors to society. It's an increasingly powerful force in the world of leadership, management and organisations. As is my wont, I find the degree to which this literature entreats us to follow its path (and no other) suspicious, feeling it is trying to blind us from contemplating Hegel's "unhappy consciousness" and pushing towards being "happy robots".

We seem to be fleeing from something, some amorphous fear lurking at the back of our minds that we can't possible let out into the open, a zombie worm of doubt and fear that feeds our anxieties. By telling us we must be this type of person, emotionally and intelligently, or emotionally intelligently (hah!), assured of making clear and rational decisions that push forward our personal and corporate agendas in the pursuit of our happyness [sic] and purpose, are we not, as we have always tended to do, pushing the complexities of human existence into the naughty corner, out of sight and out of mind. Why are we doing this? 

The following is inspired by this post on the happiness imperative from Dr Simon Western, particularly his final paragraph, in which he states :

allow yourself to feel human with all that entails; sadness, grieving, loss, pain, love, hope, joy, contentment, confusion, satisfaction, boredom, frustration, melancholy and the ambivalence of many confusing feelings.  It is all these other feelings, thoughts and emotions that make our lives so rich and so liveable.  

While all these are worthy of serious consideration, my specific interest is ambivalence. Now while the following might be too esoteric for some, I hope that many of my regular communicators and readers will find something of interest in it. It is a very small part of an unpublished chapter of my thesis in which I investigate how and why the concept of ambivalence has been pretty much purged from Western society. In short, it relates to how we have come to believe that discomfort of holding contradictory emotions, ideas and wishes when having to make decisions how to act is something akin to mental illness rather than an inherent part of the human condition. I believe that the happiness imperative and the strongly marketed concept of emotional intelligence are parts of the ongoing attempt to scrub mixed emotions from the process of decision-making, impoverishing our organisational lives and limiting business and leadership possibilities as a result. It can also help explain why attempts at critical thought in the management space are often interpreted as cynical negativity and drowned out by the relentless noise of extroverted positivity. 

Defining Ambivalence

When explaining ambivalence, it is first necessary to combat the lay definition. In common parlance, ambivalence is regularly confused with indifference. However, they are decidedly different. Kaplan defined ambivalence as combining strong positive and negative feelings about an object or person, whereas indifference combined weak ones. Ambivalence is a painful state that generates anxiety and stress, whereas indifference results in little or no personal suffering. Whereas the concept of ambivalence is deeply rooted in the structures of modern cultures and societies, the concept of indifference is etymologically a much older concept, deriving from the 14th Century, and is marked by the individual lacking interest, enthusiasm or concern for either considered direction.

Although feelings of ambivalence can be invoked via numerous different internal conflicts, its abiding nature is best defined by Kurt Lewin, who argues that ‘conflict is a situation where oppositely directed, simultaneously acting forces, of approximately equal strength, work upon the individual’ with the individualnecessarily feeling discomfort at its manifestation. The discomfort induced by ambivalence accompanies the definitions employed in reference dictionaries. For example, the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster dictionaries offer definitions consistent with those employed by the psychiatric, psychological and psychotherapeutic literatures, in which ambivalence is:

  • The coexistence of opposing attitudes or feelings, such as love and hate, toward a person, object, or idea. (American Heritage)
  • Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action (Merriam-Webster)

Its etymology certainly supports both these definitions, being an Anglicisation of the German Ambivalenz, from Latin ambi-, ambi- (both) + Latin valentia, vigor (from valent - to be strong), literally to be strong on both sides.  This usage is supported by Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, in which the ambivalence is defined as equivocation, having the following synonyms: confusion, dilemma, doubt, fluctuation, gingerliness, haze, hesitancy, hesitation, iffiness, inconclusiveness, indecision, irresoluteness, muddle, quandary, tentativeness, uncertainty, unsureness. This notion is supported by the reactions to the emotion of ambivalence in psychological and psychotherapeutic research.

The Multi-Dimensional Impact of Ambivalence

Combining the two elements suggests that the emotional or attitudinal experience of ambivalence produces a cognitive problem about how one should act in an uncertain situation. This wider usage is supported by the original conceptualization by Eugen Bleuler, whose threefold typology supported the notion that struggles with one’s inner conflicts cut across emotions, cognitions and actions. These can be summarised thus:

  • Emotional Ambivalence: An individual experiencing emotional ambivalence holds strong conflicting positive and negative feelings towards the same object.
  • Intellectual Ambivalence: An individual experiencing intellectual ambivalence holds strong contradictory ideas about an object.
  • Voluntary Ambivalence: An individual experiencing voluntary ambivalence strongly wishes to pursue contradictory actions.

This wider sense has been lost from most psychological or sociological research. There are perhaps three reasons why this is the case. The first can be traced back to the discourse surrounding early research on ambivalence, in which strong inner conflicts were perceived to be a causal symptom of ‘the group of schizophrenias’, a diverse set of disorders covering fragmentation of thought, feeling and action. Bleuler particularly emphasized the ‘the presence of psychological ambivalence and disharmony in this impairment to signify the intellectual and emotional split’ of his [schizophrenic] patients’ actions. A bitter fight to find a cure for schizophrenia demonized ambivalence. The psychiatric discipline argued people should be removed from society as soon as ambivalent behaviours manifested, to ‘be cured’ by electric shock therapy, lobotomies and pharmaceutics. Although an alternative perspective developed through Freud’s Viennese psychotherapists was characterized by empathetic relationships with ambivalent and schizophrenic patients, ambivalence was predominantly regarded as a causal symptom of a disease. The race for a cure of schizophrenia prevented ambivalence being accepted as an understandable reaction to the increasing complexities of modern living.

The second reason is noted by Neil Smelser, who, confronting the rationalist assumptions of American sociology, argued that ambivalence should be seen as a healthy state. Smelser notes that ambivalence is rarely given much attention in contemporary sociology. Drawing from Levine, he reasons that this is because of American culture's tendency "to eschew dualistic or ambivalent constructs in favour of univalent statements," suggesting that American sociologists like to search for "dominant patterns, univalent metrics, monochromatic path diagrams, and unilineal logical derivations". Smelser additionally argues that the misinterpretation of ambivalence as unhealthy has been furthered by the flexible usage of the terms ‘rational’ and ‘rational-choice’, twisting their meaning to the extent that they become synonymous with ‘adaptive’. In such an environment, a univalent man is one who has adapted to his circumstances, presenting himself rationally in relation to them, no matter how confusing, complex, contradictory or irrational they might be. As long as the presentation of self is univalent, the individual is perceived to be healthy and rational. In contrast, the ambivalent man, despite perhaps having good reason to listen to his emotional anxiety, is perceived as confused, indecisive and irrational.

Lastly, there is the relative lack of interest in Bleuler’s concepts of intellectual or voluntary ambivalence. The most commonly understood form of ambivalence is the emotional (affective) strand, in which the individual, unable to overcome the emotional pressures of the ambivalent feeling, produces displays of avoidance to mitigate the emotional intensity or denies all responsibility for subsequent action. This is largely due to most of the early research fixing on emotional ambivalence, as, motivated by Bleuler’s interest in psychotherapeutic treatment of schizophrenics, the Freudians’ work on repressed emotions, driven by his unswerving focus on legitimising psychoanalytical thought via this one srious connection with the pyschiatric industry, obscured Bleuler’s extended ideas on the fragmentation of thought and action.

The Need to Take Ambivalence Seriously

In 1997, Neil Smelser, in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Society, said of ambivalence:

it becomes clear we are dealing with a fundamental existential dilemma in the human condition. It is communicated in various dichotomies – freedom versus constraint, independence versus dependence, autonomy versus dependence, maturity versus infancy, and more – but whatever the dichotomy, the dilemma seems to be insoluble. Neither pole is a separate state or condition. Neither freedom nor dependence can be realized in a full or exclusive form, because one is part of the other. Human beings long and strive for both, but when they achieve a measure of either, the other reasserts itself. As in the nature of ambivalence itself, we want both sides at once, but cannot fully satisfy either side.

The crux of Smelser’s essay on ambivalence that people trying to make sense of an increasingly complex, fast-paced and contradictory world needed to start taking ambivalence as seriously as they do rationality.

Smelser's aim was to illustrate that ambivalence should not be stigmatised, but considered inherent to modern societies, and that ambivalent reactions should be expected and considered healthy responses to plural, paradoxical conditions. Unfortunately, the sociological, socio-psychological and psychological traditions he talked to continue to concentrate on rationality. Even when ambivalence is a perfectly understandable and healthy reaction to conflicting, contradictory, paradoxical and ambiguous conditions, adaptive rationality is expected. Modern humans must appear to be rational and decisive when coping with the situation, as displays of ambivalence risk him being stigmatized as indecisive, irrational, anxious or even mentally ill. As the current literature would have it, we must be one-dimensional emotionally intelligent decision-makers confident in understanding how we can make ourselves happy and consigning conflicting negative emotions to the dust. If we can not achieve this, then we have somehow failed as human beings! Such is the power of the anti-ambivalence movement. 

My Point (Such As It Is)

Don't be happy robots. Don't flee from this unhappy consciousness that pulls us in a plurality of directions. Embrace it, live with it. Ignoring your own frail self-contradictions is far more psychologically harmful than accepting them and opening up a critical internal dialogue about how you are going to strategically deal with them over time (as they won't magically disappear). You might end up finding your decisions are far more nuanced and critically appropriate than you felt you were capable of. 

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