What do Tony Soprano and Neil Smelser have in common? No, this isn’t the beginning of a terrible joke. The answer is, they both taught me a great deal about ambivalence.
The Neil Smelser part first. Neil is a sociologist and University Professor at UC Berkeley. Which probably explains why I never met him at Berkeley. In fact I only got to know Neil during 1997, when he was the director and I was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto.
People at the CASBS often form little interest groups that meet every other week or so to discuss a paper, or an argument, or just to discuss. I was lucky enough to be part of a group that was talking about rationality and how the concept gets used, abused, developed, and sometimes ‘tested’ in social science.
At some point during the year Neil shared with us a draft paper on the meaning of ambivalence, which later become the basis of his Presidential address to the American Sociology Association .
This was one of those simple (by which I mean elegant) papers whose core arguments stay with you forever. Neil asked about the nature of ambivalence as a state of human mind and how we could reason about it, as well as what kinds of behaviors you would expect from an ambivalent person. His core insight: there are many many things in life that we hold both very positive feelings toward, and very negative feelings toward, at the same time. Some obvious examples might be – a new luxury car about which we feel guilty for spending so much money; your mother; success on the part of someone you really don’t like very much.
Let’s take my mother as an example (she’s unlikely to be reading this, thank goodness). I love my mother enormously, AND she drives me crazy. In rational choice language, I hold a positive emotional valence toward her that I’ll call for the sake of it a value of +10. And at exactly the same time I hold a negative emotional valence toward her that has the value -7. That is almost the definition of ambivalence. Where simple rational choice – inspired preference modeling would go wrong, is in SUMMING up those two values and suggesting that I actually hold an overall positive preference toward my mother with an intensity of +3. If you tried to understand my behavior towards my mother on the basis of a +3 valence, you’d be completely confused. In fact, the one thing I am never toward my mother, is lukewarm (ie +3). Instead, I tend to swing like a pendulum between behaviors that are more consistent with +10 and those that are more consistent with -7.
I think an enormous amount of human behavior and human thought, both individual and in aggregate (like with societies and countries), is better characterized and understood in terms of the ambivalence that lies behind it, than with unidimensional measures of preferences. That has implications for all sorts of social science modeling that we do. But I don’t want to address that here. Instead I want to use three examples from current political discussions to illustrate how ambivalence works and how hard it is for the actors involved to understand not only their own ambivalence sometimes, but most importantly the ambivalence that lies behind the behavior of other actors in their ecosystem.
Example 1: What words do I hear people use when they talk about ‘globalization’? They say things like complexity, acceleration, connectivity, and interdependence. And each of these words have positive and negative valences at the same time. So:
Complexity: interesting and rich, but also fragile and vulnerable
Acceleration: exciting and new, but also leaving you behind
Connectivity: access to everything all the time, but also vulnerable to massive, cascading failure
Interdependence: strength, but also vulnerability
There it is: ambiguity at it’s best. And I have argued many times that the higher order strategic thinking for people and organizations depends on living WITH that ambiguity, not trying to reduce it to a single valence. In other words, holding the tension between these emotional responses in constructive co-existence, not letting them tear you apart, and not letting yourself believe that only one side of the equation is operating. Or vacillating unpredictably between them, cycling back and forth. Those are dysfunctional and exhausting behaviors. And they make it incredibly hard for anyone else, whether it be your partner or your customer or another major global power in an emerging bipolar relationship (hint!) to understand why you are acting the way you are and what that signals about your vital interests and intentions.
Example 2: The London subway bombing.
Everyone is trying (and just beginning, really) to make sense of what this means. How are we reading this right now in terms of our thinking about the severity of the threat to things like mass transit systems in major cities?
Ambivalence again. I see a bit of pendulum swing going on in people’s gut assessments over whether the entire ecosystem of something like a modern city at the broadest level, as well as particular subsystems within that city, are incredibly fragile, or actually incredibly robust. Here are two ways people’s beliefs are playing out. The terrorist attack shows that :
‘a modern city is such an interconnected organism, with all its resources stretched to the bone in the relentless drive for efficiency, that it would not take much to bring the whole thing crashing down’
‘a modern city is such a complex and interconnected organism, with so many redundant pathways available to intelligent agents, that it is incredibly and surprisingly robust. You hit it somewhere, and it routes around the damage then self-heals in ways that you couldn’t foresee’
Note that the mood today is mostly to default to the former interpretation… the second usually enters the discussion as a contrarian view. But to understand peoples’ behavior and responses to these events, you actually have to understand the ambivalence inherent in co-mingling of those two arguments. It’s why people get on the subway at the same time that they are scared out of their wits and talking about what a horrible thing could happen to them today.
Example 3: Tony Soprano
You had to wonder how Tony was coming in to this discussion. I love The Sopranos. I think it is the best drama I’ve seen in the movies, tv, or just about any kind of entertainment in the last few years. I love it because Tony Soprano’s character is a finely articulated study in the power of ambivalence. I love Tony, and I hate him in nearly equal measure (so do most of the characters on the show, by the way). Here’s why it’s so brilliant: just when the two sides of my emotional valence toward Tony are about to collapse into a definitive, unidimensional preference (for example, when he kicks someone nearly to death because he didn’t pay the protection money on time, or when he lies to Carmela – how could anyone lie to Edie Falco?) he immediately does something that pulls me back from the brink – showing his love to his children, or helping out his dead father’s ex-mistress who was cheated out of her share of a deal. And I’m back in the space of ambivalence.
Of course it’s uncomfortable to be in that space. But it’s human life, and I think its social life, business life, and political life as well. I’m going to keep my eyes on the fast moving US-China relationship this week to focus on the behavioral manifestations of ambivalence in that relationship – and evidence for how confusing it is to the other side.