The social tensions felt within: Explaining felt ambivalence about polarized societal debates through perceived opinion discrepancies in the social environment

Gonneke Marina Ton*, Katherine Stroebe, Martijn van Zomeren

*Corresponding author for this work

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Within the context of polarized societal debates (e.g. abortion, racism, climate change), scholars often assume that individuals have clear-cut positions, either in favour of or against the debated issue. However, recent work suggests that such debates can also be breeding grounds for felt ambivalence. Moving beyond previous work that mainly focused on ambivalence as internal cognitive conflict, we propose and test a social discrepancy hypothesis, which suggests that the discrepancies ambivalents perceive between and within their own opinion and the opinion of actors in their social network and society (e.g. friends, family, opinion-based groups) positively explain their levels of felt ambivalence. In doing so, we quantitatively extend recent qualitative work by examining whether these social tensions are indeed felt within. To this end, we employed a multi-survey research project (Ns = 184, 181, 187) in the context of different societal debates in the Netherlands. Supporting our hypothesis across different debates, results showed that ambivalents' perceived opinion differences in the social environment explained their felt ambivalence. This suggests that polarized societal debates offer social discrepancies that, for ambivalents at least, can facilitate an internalization of social tensions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Journal of Social Psychology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11-Sep-2022


  • ambivalence
  • social discrepancy
  • social tension
  • societal debates

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