Ambivalent vs. Black-and-White Thinking

Are you a black-and-white or are you shades of gray? Whether you're one or the other affects how you make decisions.

From a recent study, " students were asked to write an essay coming down on one side or another of a contentious issue, regarding a new labor law affecting young adults, while other groups of students were allowed to write about both sides of the issue. The students forced to choose a side reported feeling more uncomfortable, even physically sweating more, says Frenk van Harreveld , a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam who studies how people deal with ambivalence."

"Because of their strongly positive or strongly negative views, black-and-white thinkers tend to be quicker at making decisions than highly ambivalent people. But if they get mired in one point of view and can't see others, black-and-white thinking may prompt conflict with others or unhealthy thoughts or behaviors."

Depending on the situation, it might be better to be black-and-white, whereas in others gray.

Ambivalent thinking is generally thought to be a more mature way of thinking - usually thought of in adults - but clearly also seen in young children and often among the intellectually precocious  or gifted.

"Ambivalent individuals' ability to see all sides of an argument and feel mixed emotions appears to have some benefits. They may be better able to empathize with others' points of view, for one thing. And when people are able to feel mixed emotions, such as hope and sadness, they tend to have healthier coping strategies, such as when a spouse passes away, according to Dr. Larsen. They may also be more creative because the different emotions lead them to consider different ideas that they might otherwise have dismissed."

But ambivalent thinkers are often slow decision-makers,  easily sucked into analysis-paralysis.  

Researchers suggest that ambivalence vs. black-and-white thinking may be a general temperamental trait. It's probably a good idea to consider when trying to figure out what makes a student struggle certain assignments or writing prompts.  When a paper doesn't get written, too often it's chalked up to ADD or executive function problems, but that only obscures the real issues. Some students benefit by having a name for what they're experiencing (ambivalence) while others may need a different approach to expressive the complexity of their opinions or stance.

Usually we find that people with a strong 'ambivalent' thinking style don't like sound-bytes. They need more words to fully express the depths of their opinions and the gray areas, and also a structure to their ideas that gives a better approximation to the depth of what they experience than any short reply.

It might be that ambivalent thinkers are better suited to complex environments that require decision-making under uncertainty. In situations such as these, rules, events, and observations are not black-and-white.

Check here if you're looking for more on the brain basis of ambivalence; important areas seem to be anterior cingulate, frontal pole, and lateral orbital frontal cortex


  1. This post came at a good time for us as we prepare for an IEP meeting for our dyslexic/gifted son. The teachers have noticed that it takes our son an unusually long time to answer questions, even questions which to them only need a yes or no answer. One teacher asked me if I had any idea "how to fix someone" who has this problem. I explained to him that he tends to think about things a lot and has a very hard time making decisions in general. Even when asked to choose between two things he may react anxiously with, "I don't know which one I want, tell me, which one do I want!" I was Googling for some information on this type of things and here I landed! :-)

  2. Anonymous9:36 AM

    Have you heard of the Perry Scheme? If not, you can read about it here:

    I think it is related to what you write, don't you?

    I find it to be one of the best ways of looking at intellectual development.