Ambivalence and the Decision Tree

If you’re ambivalent, you have conflicting or even opposite feelings. It sounds simple enough, but it’s not so easy to appreciate how thoroughly it shapes your life. Ambivalence can be paralyzing, exasperating, intimidating—or inspiring–when you have to admit that we’re of two minds (at least) about everything.

As Ernest Becker reminds us, we’re animals like all the other animals: and we’re built to be both predators and prey. Among other things, we are self-aware.  But conflict often escapes us.  We can’t wait to grow up, for example, yet we hate to grow up because it means narrowing choices and inescapable death.

Ambivalence began to intrigue me when I found to my amazement that most (smart) college students I asked were unable to define the term. They confuse it with ambiguity and equivocation. The concept that we have conflicted feelings and attitudes about everything seemed strange to them, or only hazily familiar. Students know they have complicated inner life, but they’re fuzzy about the concept that would give them some control over it.  What’s going on here?

 A generation or two ago most college students knew Freudian lingo. Thinking about inner life, they used terms such as repression and ambivalence—sometimes clumsily, but that’s another story.

Freud, you recall, saw personality beset by conflicting forces. The challenge was to face up to the storm of reality and keep your balance. For Freud, you were a detective of inner life trying to identify the often invisible pressures pushing you off the sidewalk. It was all about keeping an eye on the shadows and continual problem-solving. It was all process, with no trophy answers and lifetime guarantees. And it was a moral drama too. It prodded you to admire courage and honesty and the ability to harmonize tensions—what the Victorians used to call character.

The Freudian heyday was the hair-raising twentieth century with its insane industrial killing, sickening economic Depressions, and social revolutions smoked down to a roach that burned your fingers.

Lately, I’ve been told, Freud is old-fashioned. What’s changed?

A generation has grown up in the post-Vietnam age of computer technology and consumer utopia. Tech boosts productivity and wealth. But now the trope shaping inner life is no longer Freud’s vision of wrestling with ambivalence, but the decision tree. Like a computer program, life is a sequence of choices.  

Technology lays out, even guarantees the choice. The computer assembles a database and guides you to pick the right career, the right spouse, the right neighborhood, the right child, the right pediatrician, the right school. If you choose correctly each branch of the decision tree, you reach utopia as in a board game. Or you kill every enemy in sight and rest your tired thumbs in video-game triumph. The model implies that utopia means success, prestige, perfect contentment, envious eyes on your awesome wardrobe and your McMansion.

Industrialism and robotics seem to make wealth and correct choices for us.  Today’s bling overlaps periods of historical wealth such as the Gilded Age, but the decision tree is different.

Of course we’ve always been ambivalent, so we do and don’t believe in perfect choice. Belief in perfect success may elate you but also depress you. Or make you cynical. Or gullible.

And the bigger picture remains ambivalent. Google promises that omniscience is only a click away. In hopes of escaping the mechanical schema, we try to think “outside the box.” Historically, plague dumped bodies into mass graves, and worshipers blamed themselves and begged a “loving god” for forgiveness. These days nature threatens us with a pandemic virus, but we choose a tech-inspired “warp speed” vaccine to save us, as if such a solution already existed.

Tech is so convincing—so comprehensive—that we easily lose touch with the ambivalence built into us. Science wisecracks that we are thinking meat. Astronomers see terrifying black holes and the media run colorful photos of the heavens. Already we can see the prospect of human extinction, and popular science is fantasizing about exoplanets light years away.

One problem is denial.  Cosmic photos flatter us with technical heroism. At the same time they deny our creaturely motives: fear of our puny helplessness and our compulsion for more life. TV ads sell immortal snake oil or boost your immunity.  Brands idealize romance and sex, which literally make more life in the comfortable families that populate advertising. 

You love intimacy, but you resent its demands too. You enjoy sex but there are times when part of your brain is echoing Lord Chesterfield’s harumpf that “the sensation’s only momentary, and the positions are ridiculous.” When hormones are boogeying, you nearly faint at the sight of a beautiful body. Yet bodies are also hilariously grotesque, with a big toe on one end, a bony pod of thinking meat on the other–and in the middle, thirty feet of plumbing, erratic hair, and assorted orifices. You love your body. It feels sexy and promises to generate more life yet you’re also trapped in it and if you stick around long enough, it will decay and take you with it.

Decision tree behavior is easy to caricature because you and I know that in reality it’s artificial (1).  Dig deeper and you find that decision tree behavior is also insolubly ambivalent. Decision tree culture privileges executive freedom and enforces factory controls. Yet it’s raised living standards by systematizing work in scale  at the same time that it  fosters delusion and injustice.

The paradox is that ambivalence generates anxiety: and anxiety spurs us to create cultures that shelter us from creaturely conflicts. No wonder us bipeds are continually renovating houses, religions, and scientific theories. No wonder we’re tirelessly tinkering with the cultures that  enable us to believe our lives have enduring significance. We love them. We fear and hate them. We try to improve them.

1. The best caricature of decision-tree thinking I know is in one of the most profound American novels, John Barth’s devastatingly tragicomic The End of the Road (1958). Not to be missed. 

One way of coping with ambivalence is to “let it all hang out” or “go for it.” Berserk abandon promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. If this dynamic interests you, check out The Psychology of Abandon (Levellers Press):

<<Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare to politics and intimate life.>>

<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. In fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.>>

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