Hernandez explores the benefits of using ambivalence in decision-making

December 6, 2022

The longer decisions take, the more discomfort they cause us. But in a new article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Ford School professor Morela Hernandez argues that the more we sit in that discomfort or ambivalence, the better.

“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,” notes Hernandez, who is faculty director of the Leadership Initiative, with her co-authors Cristiano Gurana, Indiana University assistant professor, and Catherine Owsik, University of Virginia PhD student.

Hurried decisions can be dangerous since they rely on unconscious processing where the brain uses shortcuts and readily available information to make a decision.

“Relying on unconscious processing can interfere with making thorny decisions effectively, which requires weighing pros and cons carefully and with minimal bias,” Hernandez and her coauthors explain. “Identified ambivalence is a good tool because it keeps the unconscious mind from getting trapped by its biases.”

The article summarizes two studies the group conducted to investigate the link between ambivalence and effective decision-making. 

The first study tests whether identified ambivalence benefits those with low moral attentiveness or high moral attentiveness more. Hernandez and her co-authors randomly assigned participants to four different conditions in a decision-making exercise, one of which participants were primed to think about ambivalence. Participants in this group, compared to the other three study groups, were almost 10 times more likely to make the most logical decision possible — proving that identified ambivalence has a significant positive effect on ethical decision-making and mitigating unconscious bias.

The second study examined how awareness of ambivalence helps to deflect bias. Participants were assigned to either ambivalent or indifferent conditions. Then, participants were given a passage to read and answered a question about the passage. From the results, Hernandez and her colleagues concluded that identified ambivalence helps prevent bias, especially in people with low moral attentiveness.

Based on these studies, the authors propose three ways to improve the workplace. First, by practicing identified ambivalence, “leaders can engage stakeholders by questioning the role of the established processes and systems.”

Second, using identified ambivalence in collective decision-making to ensure balanced consideration of options and to mitigate any bias present. 

Finally, Hernandez and her co-authors suggest using counterfactual thinking to share ideas between different levels of an organization. “After-the-fact discussions pave the way for better future decisions by making it safe to discuss relevant information and ideas that might have been overlooked earlier,” they write.

“Our results offer consistent and robust evidence that individuals who are aware of their ambivalence are more likely than others to attend to the moral aspects of dilemmas and make effective ethical decisions: Fewer gut reactions result in fewer ethical errors,” Hernandez and her co-authors conclude. “New cognitive strategies can help create new decision-making competencies, even when traits of employees and company culture are unchanged.”

Read the entirety of “Use Your Ambivalence to Make More Ethical Decisions” in the MIT Sloan Management Review.