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Why ambivalence is the dark matter of political debate

Normal polling methods struggle to detect people’s internal divisions, yet the Scottish referendum has just demonstrated how powerful an effect ambivalence can be.

By Ian Leslie

The numbers have a stark clarity: 55 per cent for, 45 per cent against. But if you were able to peer inside the minds of many who voted in Scotland’s referendum you would probably have found something much less simple, and much more contradictory: voters who wanted Scotland to be independent but didn’t want to leave the union, and voters who wanted to remain part of Great Britain but longed to throw in their lot with the nationalists. When it comes to complex and deeply felt issues, it is human nature to be ambivalent.

Ambivalence – the mental mess that exists before someone forces you to commit to a view – is an underrated and misunderstood phenomenon in politics. It is not indifference, though it’s sometimes mistaken for it. An ambivalent person holds contradictory views so strongly that neither will cede to the other; their ambivalence results from an excess, not a deficit, of opinion. When she votes, or when a pollster asks her a question, she forces this incoherence uncomfortably into one box or another.

Ambivalence is physical: we say, “on the one hand, on the other hand”, and we “waver” or “feel torn”. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam’s Uncertainty Lab presented students with information about a controversial employment law in the Netherlands. One group read a briefing that made a strong argument against the law, while another received a briefing that made both cases with equal force, a standard method for inducing ambivalence. The participants were then given a few minutes to think about it, while electrodes measured the moisture in their skin. Those in the ambivalent condition literally sweated over their decision. 

In another experiment from the same lab, participants were asked to consider their view on a controversial issue while standing on a Wii balance board. Those experiencing ambivalence moved from side to side more than those who were not. The effect even worked in reverse: people moving from side to side on the board were more likely to feel ambivalent than people who were standing still or moving up and down.

Ambivalence is the dark matter of political debate: normal instruments cannot detect it. Pollsters find it hard to measure because it registers only as indifference on their five-point scales. But political scientists who study it (see, for example, this collection of essays), believe that people’s views on seemingly polarising issues are a lot less clear-cut than they seem. For instance, the way public opinion shifted so quickly and decisively on gay marriage in the US and UK suggested that, rather than being the result of people switching from one firmly held view to another, a build-up of ambivalence being resolved. People believed that marriage was a heterosexual institution and also that anyone should be able to marry who they liked. At a certain point, the latter view won out, but it would be wrong to say that these voters switched sides, since they were on both sides to begin with.

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Something similar, I suspect, happened during the referendum campaign. We’ve heard that the Scots were divided against one another, but for many, if not most, the main division was internal. Those big movements in the polls – the Yes campaign gaining support fast in the month before the vote, the swing back to No in the final days – represented the roiling emotions of those torn between patriotism and empiricism, those twin poles of the Scottish character.

As Rick Nye of Populus has pointed out, a year before the referendum, nearly a third of voters were undecided, and most of them (70 per cent) were attracted to the idea of independence but wary of the accompanying economic risks – as close as you can get to polling evidence of an ambivalent mindset. The Better Together campaign, for all that it was accused of negativity (which, considering they were asking people to vote No, always seemed a tad unfair to me), succeeded in their core task of preventing those undecided voters from allowing their heart to overwhelm their mind – of reconciling their ambivalence into an unequivocally pro-independence position.

In the days following Scotland’s vote to stay in the United Kingdom, supporters of the “Yes” campaign could be heard expressing their belief that many of those who voted No had wanted to side with them had allowed the Better Together campaign to scare their heads into over-ruling their hearts. In a sense, they’re correct, but that can hardly be a consolation once you understand that the job of both campaigns was to gain the votes of those with divided sympathies.

Those on the pro-union side who longed for Alistair Darling to put the positive case for staying with the UK couldn’t see that the anxiety he communicated about separation effectively amplified the fears of the undecided (or that the strongest parts of Gordon Brown’s speech were negative: “It’s not about the fear of the unknown. It’s the risks of the known”). Perhaps they couldn’t see it because they weren’t sufficiently in touch with the ambivalence of many who wanted independence. The best political strategies are formulated by people who have empathy for opposing views.

If some No voters yearned to support independence , the reverse also applies. On the day of the referendum, the Guardian’s Michael White talked to an old soldier in a kilt, outside the cathedral of St Giles on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. “As a patriotic Scot I’ll vote for Yes, hoping No will win,” he said. “So will lots of people.”

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