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People ambivalent about political issues support violence more than those with clear opinions

The more ambivalent a person is about a political issue, the more likely they are to support violence and other extreme actions relating to that issue.

Many people who hold political views are uncertain about their opinions. GSO Images/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Choices about political candidates and issues are inherently limited and imperfect, leading many people to feel mixed emotions, and even conflicting opinions, about which candidate or position they prefer.

In general, being ambivalent reduces political participation. For example, the more ambivalent a person is about candidates in an election, the less likely that person is to vote.

We are social psychologists who study how people’s beliefs affect their behavior.

In a new article in the journal Science Advances, we find something that runs counter to that trend of uninvolved ambivalence: The more ambivalent a person is about a political issue, the more likely they are to support violence and other extreme actions relating to that topic.

Ambivalent people are more supportive of extreme actions

In one study in a series we conducted, we measured the opinions of several thousand people across several surveys on one of several topics, such as abortion, gun control or COVID-19 policies. We also measured how ambivalent they were about that opinion. Then we asked about their willingness to potentially engage in various actions in support of their opinion. Some of the actions were ordinary, such as voting for candidates whom the participants agreed with, donating money or volunteering. Other actions were more extreme, such as engaging in violence against their partisan opponents.

In other studies, we examined national data collected by researchers at the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group and the Cooperative Election Study that included similar questions.

When we analyzed the links between people’s ambivalence and their willingness to engage in or support each behavior, we found that the results in all the studies depended on the behaviors’ extremity. As expected, more ambivalent people were less willing to support or engage in the moderate actions, such as voting. But contrary to our initial expectations, people who felt more ambivalent were also more willing to support or engage in the extreme actions, especially if they felt strongly about the issue.

People who wrestle with political views often feel uncomfortable with their ambivalence.
Povozniuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Handling discomfort

In subsequent studies, we tried to understand why more ambivalent people express more support for extreme political actions, from confronting one’s political opponents or campaigning to get them fired to even more extreme acts, including violence.

We thought one factor might be the psychological discomfort that ambivalent people experience: When people feel uncomfortable about their beliefs, they often look for ways to compensate by signaling strength. For instance, when their beliefs are challenged, people sometimes respond by supporting them even more strongly.

Similarly, we thought ambivalent people might support extreme actions because they feel uneasy and want to signal clarity and conviction about their beliefs.

Our results were consistent with this idea that people might compensate for their discomfort by supporting extreme actions: When we asked how uncomfortable participants felt about the opinions they held on the issue, more ambivalent people reported feeling less comfortable with their views, which was also related to them supporting extreme behaviors more.

Extreme actions with real stakes

These are hypothetical behaviors, though. Are more ambivalent people actually more willing to take extreme actions?

We tested this by asking people about specific actions with real consequences. We gave participants a chance to allocate money to pro-environmental organizations known for their radical ideologies and tactics, such as sabotaging energy infrastructure and obstructing traffic – JustStopOil and EarthFirst! Alternatively, participants could opt for a chance to win some of or all the money themselves.

We found that people who were ambivalent about environmentalism allocated more money to JustStopOil and EarthFirst! than people who were not ambivalent, especially if they felt strongly about environmental issues. And this was specific to the radical charities. When given the same opportunity to donate to mainstream organizations – the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy – ambivalent people did not allocate more money than nonambivalent people.

We didn’t directly test why people would strongly support environmentalism despite feeling ambivalent about environmental issues. But perhaps it’s that people who worry about climate change also are concerned about the economic consequences of addressing it. Or people who struggle to make environmentally friendly choices and feel like they are not living up to their own standards. Or maybe people with a more general type of political ambivalence, such as a belief that even good policies have trade-offs.

A bigger picture

The link between ambivalence and supporting extreme actions in our studies was one of correlation – where two items are connected but the cause of that connection is not determined. So we can’t be sure ambivalence is the cause of that support. Maybe the relationship goes the other way, and supporting extreme actions makes people more ambivalent. Or maybe some other factor that we overlooked affects both.

But when we looked for evidence for these alternative explanations, we didn’t find much. For example, changing whether we asked about ambivalence before or after asking about support for the extreme actions didn’t affect the results. And although extreme behavior is related to other factors, such as tendency toward aggressiveness, even when we compared people who were equal on those other factors, ambivalence still mattered. Still, we don’t know everything about the relationship between ambivalence and extreme action.

The psychology of extreme behavior is complex. To explain its causes, many studies highlight that some people are especially susceptible to extremism, including those who struggle to regulate their emotions. Our research suggests another possibility: that some beliefs themselves have characteristics – especially ambivalence – that promote support for extreme actions.

Richard Petty receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Ohio State University Office of Research.

Joseph Siev does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.



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