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Between the devil and the deep blue sea?

Exploring the unique experience of ambivalence in the context of societal debates
PhD ceremony:G.M. (Gonneke) Ton
When:April 04, 2024
Supervisors:prof. dr. M. (Martijn) van Zomeren, K.E. (Katherine) Stroebe, Prof
Where:Academy building RUG
Faculty:Behavioural and Social Sciences
Between the devil and the deep blue sea?

This dissertation explores the experience of ambivalent individuals (those in doubt) in the context of societal debates. These debates are fueled by two groups fundamentally disagreeing on issues such as abortion, or the character of Black Pete. While existing social-psychological literature primarily focuses on understanding proponents and opponents, my research centers on the ambivalent group, that feels trapped in the social conflict due to the debate. The dissertation addresses three questions: why do people feel ambivalent in societal debates, how do they experience this ambivalence, and how do they cope with it?

The dissertation comprises three empirical chapters, applying both qualitative and quantitative methods to various debates, such as the Black Pete debate in the Netherlands and the abortion debate in the United States. The findings emphasize that ambivalence is a social-psychological experience influenced by conflicting social forces, perspectives of friends and family, social pressure, and perceived polarization. It suggests that ambivalent individuals feel pressure to choose between the conflicting parties precisely because they feel connected to both sides of the debate. Ambivalent individuals thus find themselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

We conclude that ambivalence within such contexts can arise from perceiving and internalizing social conflicts. Ambivalence is not a comfortable experience, but interestingly, our findings show that this group does not merely seek to avoid the discussion; they also strive for understanding and reconciliation between conflicting parties. Ambivalent individuals may, therefore, potentially could make valuable contributions to de-escalation and solutions in societal debates.