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Communication Theory ISSN 1050-3293


Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence:

The Role of Multiple Beliefs
and Metacognitions in Creating
Attitude Ambivalence
Hyunjin Song1 & David R. Ewoldsen2
1 School of Communication, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA
2 School of Communication and Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

Although research suggests political ambivalence prevails in the American public, little
attention has been paid to the mechanisms through which a persons attitude structure
and relevant antecedents interact to create ambivalence. This article aims to summarize
and synthesize the results of existing studies on ambivalence in order to construct a coher-
ent theoretical framework to explain various ambivalence phenomena identified across the
social sciences. First, relevant studies and conceptualizations of ambivalence are reviewed.
Next, drawing from the metacognitive model and belief accessibility, potential relations and
mechanisms are presented wherein multiple beliefs and metacognitions are related to the
attitude object to create ambivalence. Last, the theoretical contributions and implications
of the proposed model are discussed.

Keywords: Ambivalence, Attitude Accessibility, Belief Accessibility, Metacognitive Model,

Attitude Structure.


An oncologist informs a woman that the suspicious area found in her routine mam-
mogram is cancer. After further diagnostics, the doctor recommends a mastectomy
as the best treatment option. While greatly troubled by the diagnosis of breast can-
cer, the woman may likely have a positive attitude toward the mastectomy because of
its role in treating the cancer. Likewise, her partner has reassured her not to worry
about the esthetic effects of the surgery. She is loved and will continue to be loved
regardless. Yet, at times the woman may feel ambivalent about the surgery because,
while the surgery will help with the cancer, despite her knowledge of her partners
love, she has moments when the negative attitude regarding the esthetic effects of the
surgery surface to consciousness. At another level, she also feels some ambivalence
about the use of a mastectomy as a treatment. Her beliefs about a mastectomy may

Corresponding author: Hyunjin Song; e-mail: song.555@osu.edu

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Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

include both positive beliefs about the efficacy of the mastectomy as well as negative
beliefs involving botched surgeries or unnecessary surgeries (Gill & Babrow, 2007).
This example highlights the complexity of attitude ambivalence because the ambiva-
lence can arise from conflicting attitudes (effective treatment vs. esthetic effect of the
surgery) or from conflicting beliefs (efficacy beliefs vs. beliefs about unnecessary surg-
eries). In this article, we will present a single unified model that attempts to integrate
these different sources of ambivalence.
A growing body of literature shows that a considerable proportion of the American
public are ambivalent in regard to many health care decisions (Dormandy, Hank-
ins, & Marteaum, 2006; Gill & Babrow, 2007), as well as several important social
issues, including abortion (Alvarez & Brehm, 1995; Craig, Kane, & Martinez, 2002),
gay rights (Craig, Martinez, & Kane, 2005), and the welfare state (Feldman, 1988;
Feldman & Zaller, 1992; Gainous, Craig, & Martinez, 2008; Gainous & Martinez,
2005). Moreover, ambivalence is strongly connected to various attitude-related con-
structs such as the stability, predictability, and strength of a persons attitude (Armitage
& Conner, 2000; Clark, Wegener, & Fabrigar, 2008; Maio, Bell, & Esses, 1996; McGraw,
Hasecke, & Conger, 2003; Thompson, Zanna, & Griffin, 1995). An individual who has
an ambivalent attitude is more likely to be swayed than those who hold univalent atti-
tudes (Craig et al., 2005; Martinez, Gainous, & Craig, 2012). Also, studies repeatedly
suggest that ambivalent attitudes are positively related to systematic information pro-
cessing in order to increase ones judgmental confidence in their attitude (Alvarez &
Brehm, 1995, 2002; Meffert, Guge, & Lodge, 2004; Rudolph & Popp, 2007; Zhao & Cai,
2008). As a consequence, scholars have argued that ambivalence is the key to a more
complete understanding regarding the nature of the publics attitudes and opinions
(Priester & Petty, 2001; Thompson et al., 1995; Zaller, 1992).
Despite continued efforts to synthesize various approaches to ambivalence (for
overview, see Baek, 2010), a coherent theoretical understanding, explaining various
ambivalence phenomena, has yet to be established. Currently absent in existing mod-
els and theoretical explanations of ambivalence is an account of the causal processes
via which the structure of individuals attitudes and competing beliefs relevant to the
attitude interact to yield an ambivalent attitude toward given attitude objects. Psycho-
logical approaches to ambivalence implicitly treat ambivalence as an a priori given,
paying little attention to its possible antecedents with a few notable exceptions (e.g.,
Priester & Petty, 2001; Visser & Mirabile, 2004). Studies of ambivalence in political sci-
ence, health communication, and sociology, on the other hand, often fail to specify the
mechanism via which potential evaluative tensions from competing social relations
and value conflicts are translated into ambivalence.
The primary aim of this review is to summarize and synthesize the existing stud-
ies on ambivalence, and to present our metacognitive model (MCM) of ambivalence.
By doing so, we attempt to provide a coherent explanation of various ambivalence
phenomena across the social sciences. Before describing our conceptual model, how-
ever, basic definitions of ambivalence are reviewed. Next, a new framework, along
with a summary of the relevant literature and conceptualizations, is proposed as a

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H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

basis for identifying and understanding the possible mechanisms via which attitudinal
ambivalence is created within various communication contexts. Last, the theoretical
contributions and implications of the model are discussed.

Explicating ambivalence
According to Kaplan (1972, p. 362), ambivalence simultaneously indicate[s] both
a favorable and an unfavorable attitude toward a given stimulus object. The con-
temporary theories of ambivalence postulate that a persons opinions or attitudes
could be composed of internally conflicting elements such as positive and negative
considerations1 that occupy separate dimensions in a bivariate space (Cacioppo &
Berntson, 1994; Lang, Shin, & Lee, 2005). Cacioppo and Berntsons (1994) bivariate
evaluative space model (BES) further postulates that these conflicting evaluations
can be simultaneously activated, and more importantly evaluated separately under
certain conditions (also see Kaplan, 1972; Thompson et al., 1995). The notion
of ambivalence, therefore, suggests that ones attitudes fall within the following
three categories depending on the relative intensity of the positive and negative
evaluationsindifferent (low in both positive and negative terms), univalent (high
in positive terms and low in negative terms, and vice versa), and ambivalent (high in
both positive and negative terms).2
Public opinion scholars, mainly within the context of survey nonresponse and
instability issues, have also advanced the theoretical understanding of ambivalence
(e.g., Feldman & Zaller, 1992; Zaller & Feldman, 1992). Zaller and Feldman (1992,
p. 579) argued that citizens carry around in their heads a mix of only partially con-
sistent ideas and considerations. They further asserted that as the items in most
public opinion surveys are framed as summary judgments, requiring respondents
to aggregate multiple and potentially conflicting considerations into a single answer,
respondents are less likely to offer a consistent judgment when answering a series of
survey items over time. A similar process occurs when people make medical decisions
involving screening options for a medical condition when they have ambivalent atti-
tudes toward the screening. A screening decision is made at a particular moment in
time so that their attitude toward the screening appears to be univalent, but compli-
ance with the screening procedure may vacillate due to the ambivalence of the attitude
toward the procedure (Dormandy et al., 2006).

Subjective versus objective ambivalence

Studies of ambivalence differentiate between two kinds of ambivalencesubjective
ambivalence as a metajudgment, and objective ambivalence as a structural feature of
attitudes. Subjective ambivalence refers to individuals perceptions of psychological
conflictthat is, feeling ambivalent or conflictedand is often assessed by simply
asking respondents to make a metajudgment reporting whether they are one-sided
with respect to the attitude object or if they are somewhat conflicted, confused, or

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Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

mixed (Bassili, 1996; Holbrook & Krosnick, 2005; Priester & Petty, 1996; Thomp-
son et al., 1995). In contrast, objective ambivalence has been conceptualized as an
underlying attitudinal structure of subjective ambivalence (DeMarree, Petty, & Briol,
2007). Objective ambivalence is based on the following premises: (a) that positive and
negative evaluations can exist in an attitude structure separately but simultaneously
(Kaplan, 1972; Priester & Petty, 1996) and (b) that ambivalence increases as the func-
tion of intensity (i.e., the sum of an individuals positive and negative evaluations) and
the discrepancy between positive and negative evaluations (Thompson et al., 1995).
Structural measures of ambivalence are assessed by separately measuring participants
positive and negative reactions to an attitude object while ignoring any reactions of
the opposite valence, and then submitting these evaluations to certain mathematical
formulas (for a critical assessment of various formulas, see Priester and Petty (1996);
Kaplan (1972), and Thompson et al. (1995)).3

Implicitly measured versus explicitly measured ambivalence

One important related theoretical issue regarding the distinction between subjec-
tive versus objective ambivalence is the discrepancy between implicit and explicit
measures of attitude (Ewoldsen, Rhodes, & Fazio, 2014). The critical element of
these distinctions centers on the differentiation between a spontaneous reaction
(i.e., implicit measures of attitudes) and a more deliberative reaction (i.e., explicit
measures of attitudes) (Olson & Fazio, 2009; Petty & Briol, 2009; Petty, Briol, &
DeMarree, 2007). Within this framework, implicit ambivalence occurs when people
have conflicting evaluations of an attitude object but do not label this conflict as
ambivalencebecause they are either unaware of the evaluative conflict, or reject
one of the reactions in favor of the other as representing their true response (Petty &
Briol, 2009). Explicit ambivalence, on the contrary, requires people to recognize (a)
the existence of both positive and negative evaluations and (b) the resulting evalua-
tive tensions. When conflicting evaluations are not explicitly recognized, however,
individuals may not be aware of their internally conflicted attitudes (Petty, Briol,
& DeMarree, 2007). In this situation, the mismatch between automatic evaluations
and the deliberative response to the explicit attitude measure could be experienced
as a distressing tension. However, if recognized, implicit ambivalence may motivate
people to resolve the discrepancy by seeking out information that has the potential
to reduce the extent of such discrepancy (Petty & Briol, 2009).

Vertical versus horizontal ambivalence

From the perspective of interattitudinal inconsistency (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993) or the
MCM framework (Petty & Briol, 2009; Petty, Briol, & DeMarree, 2007), the verti-
cal inconsistency of attitude structure itself (i.e., the discrepancy between implicit and
explicit attitude) could serve as a source of ambivalence (Baek, 2010). As depicted in
Figure 1, the MCM postulates that the positive or negative evaluations constitute a
primary cognition that is typically governed by the automatic activation. This pri-
mary cognition, in turn, is marked with its own validity tag (e.g., true, false, valid),

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H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

Positive Validity tag

Automatic evaluations (e.g., true)
activation Deliberative

Attitude Primary Secondary

Object cognition cognition

Negative Validity tag

evaluations (e.g., false)
Figure 1 A conceptual representation of the metacognitive model of attitudes (MCM: Petty
& Briol, 2009; Petty, Briol, & DeMarree, 2007).

Attribute 1 Evaluation 1

Object Attribute 2 Evaluation 2

Attribute 3 Evaluation 3

Figure 2 An attitude object and multiple attributes.

which constitutes a secondary cognition that involves more deliberative processes.

Thus, according to the MCM, ambivalence arises in the following scenario: (a) both
positive and negative associations are linked to a single attitude object (e.g., smoking
is acceptable vs. smoking is unhealthy), and (b) one of the primary evaluative asso-
ciations is rejected and tagged with a secondary cognition as invalid (e.g., smoking
is acceptable is not valid) (De Liver, Van Der Pligt, & Wigboldus, 2007). However,
(c) when a secondary cognition (e.g., not valid) is not retrieved when the automatic
activation of positive evaluation occurs (e.g., smoking is acceptable), ambivalence
arises because of the simultaneous activation of the positive (acceptable) and the
negative evaluation (unhealthy).
In contrast, the approach of horizontal ambivalence, which is depicted in Figures 2
and 3, focuses on multiple beliefs that a given individual might hold concerning an
attitude object (Baek, 2010; Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Price & Tewksbury, 1997).

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Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

Consideration 1 Consideration 2

(-) ? (+)


Figure 3 An ambivalence caused by competing considerations.

Primarily advanced in the study of interpersonal discussion network heterogeneity

research, an individuals multiple social relationships (Huckfeldt, Mendez, & Osborn,
2004; Mutz, 2002; Nir, 2005) are often theorized as potential sources of ambivalence.
For instance, as the number of partisan discussants in ones social networks increase,
the accessible list of reasons for liking one political candidate and disliking others
increases (Huckfeldt et al., 2004). As a consequence, an individual may be conflicted
in terms of trying to weigh the pros and cons of supporting a particular candidate.4
Likewise, it is often theorized that certain policy issues require respondents to
simultaneously consider a set of conflicting core values (e.g., humanitarianism, equal-
ity, or individualism) that are potentially incommensurable (Alvarez & Brehm, 2002;
Lavine, 2001). For instance, when asked their opinions regarding abortion, individu-
als are confronted with two clearly opposing ideas that a woman has right to control
her own body and that human life begins before birth (Alvarez & Brehm, 1995; Craig
et al., 2002). Similarly, the way the media cover certain issues (Gill & Babrow, 2007;
Chong & Druckman, 2007) or the net valence of the message environment in ones
media environment (Hmielowski, 2012; Keele & Wolak, 2008) likely increases the
potential for people to experience ambivalence. For instance, previous research has
found that the consumption of one-sided messages from the media (e.g., conserva-
tive talk radio) is negatively related to the level of attitudinal ambivalence, whereas
the consumption of two-sided messages (e.g., political ads) is associated with greater
attitudinal ambivalence (Hmielowski, 2012; Keele & Wolak, 2008).

Toward an integrated model of ambivalence

Despite a wide range of scholarly interest, an integrated model that synthesizes these
various approaches to the study of ambivalence has not yet been proposed. Most of
the prior models of horizontal inconsistency/ambivalence (the dominant approach
in public opinion research) do not posit any formal attitudinal structures to explain

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H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

why and how these potentially competing considerations are translated (or, not
translated) into ambivalence. Nor do existing theoretical models of attitudinal struc-
ture (the dominant approach in social psychology), such as the MODE model or the
MCM framework, successfully explain the possible relationship between attitudinal
structure and various antecedents of ambivalence. With its focus on the automatic
activation of a composite attitude, the MCM framework neither clearly specifies the
role of existing beliefs of the attitude object (e.g., Blankenship, Wegener, & Murray,
2012; Van Harreveld & Van Der Pligt, 2004) nor explains the impact of novel infor-
mation in attitude formation or change (Blankenship et al., 2012; Van Overwalle &
Siebler, 2005). As a consequence, it is not clear how various communication processes
and/or sociological antecedents, which presumably play a crucial role in making
existing attributes more salient or even introducing new information concerning
attitude objects, are related to an overall judgment and evaluative processes.

Metacognitive model of ambivalence

In order to fill these voids in extant literature, we first outline our conceptual model
of metacognitive ambivalence (also presented in Figure 4). We first start with a broad
assumption that attitudes are constructed as one needs such attitudes, based on num-
ber of different factors such as, but not limited to, relevant mental considerations,
prior evaluative associations of related objects, or behaviors of individuals (Schwarz &
Bohner, 2001). Following this assumption, the present model views attitudes, includ-
ing ambivalence as one of the possible forms of ones attitudes, as a set of associations
among an attitude object, its subordinate attributes (e.g., beliefs that person holds
toward the attitude object), evaluations of subordinate attributes, and their metacog-
nitive judgments. Stated more formally:
Proposition 1: A global attitude object is linked to its subordinate belief (attributes
of an object) within ones mental structure, with varying degree of accessibility of
such beliefs.
Proposition 2: Each belief of a global attitude object is associated with its own
evaluative judgment, or a primary cognitionpositive, neutral, or negative.
As the research on belief accessibility and the associative network framework
hypothesizes, a global attitude object is assumed to be linked to its subordi-
nate attributes (or a set of related memories or beliefs) with varying degree of
accessibilitythe ease with which specific attributes can be retrieved from memory
in relation to an attitude object (Roskos-Ewoldsen & Fazio, 1997). Each of the sub-
ordinate attributes is assumed to be associated with a respective evaluation toward
the attributes (i.e., the primary cognition or evaluation: Fazio, 2007) but there is no
assumption that the evaluations of the various attributes have to be consistent across
the various beliefs. For example, one might evaluate some personal characteristics of
a political candidate positively (e.g., his or her connection with Barack Obama) while

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Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

Primary cognition Secondary cognition

Positive Validity tag
Attribute 1 evaluation 1 (e.g., false)

4A. No activation of
secondary cognitions

Negative Validity tag

Attitude Attribute 2 evaluation 1 (e.g., false)

4B. Changing the secondary

4C. Making new attribute more cognition (e.g., false -> true)
accessible than before

Negative Validity tag

Attribute 3 evaluation 2 (e.g., true)

Figure 4 An attitude structure of objectattributesevaluationsmetacognitions.

at the same time evaluate his or her stance on social issues negatively (e.g., attitudes
about Obamas health care reform).5
Extant research suggests that when individuals form a global attitude, they
actively incorporate evaluative judgments of multiple attributes into a single
summary evaluation that is stored in memory (e.g., Roskos-Ewoldsen & Fazio,
1997; Van Der Pligt, De Vries, Manstead, & Van Harreveld, 2000). This bottom-up
processing implies that individuals engage in mathematic-like computations (such
as that of the expectancy-value model: Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980) in order to integrate
multiple attributes.6 However, individuals do not necessarily recompute the entire
set of relevant attribute judgments at all times because they can access a summary
attitude as well. However, when motivated or explicitly asked to reconsider their
beliefs about the attitude object, they can formulate an attitude anew using an inte-
grative process to consider the relevant attributes or beliefs about the attitude object
(Roskos-Ewoldsen & Fazio, 1997; Van Harreveld, Van Der Pligt, De Vries, Wenneker,
& Verhue, 2004; but for an opposing view, see Fazio, 2007).
Another crucial component of our model lies in its emphasis on ones metacogni-
tive judgment toward ones own primary cognitions. Stated more formally:
Proposition 3: Each of the primary cognitions of relevant beliefs, or attributes, is
tagged with a respective metacognition, or a secondary cognition.
Proposition 4: Metacognitions regarding the primary cognitions could modify
(suppress or magnify) the use of respective primary cognitions in formulating an

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H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

The present model assumes that each of the evaluative judgments of the relevant
beliefs or attributes is tagged with its respective metacognition, which indicates vary-
ing degrees of cognitive assessment such as confidence or perceived validity with
respect to ones evaluative judgment (e.g., That thought came to mind easily, so it
must be correct) (Petty, Briol, Tormala, & Wegener, 2007). Scholars suggest that
metacognition acts as a confidence or validity tag related to a primary cognition (Petty,
Briol, et al., 2007; Tormala & DeSensi, 2008), therefore metacognitions are partic-
ularly important for understanding attitudes. Extant research suggests that greater
confidence or validity toward the primary cognition predicts greater use of respec-
tive evaluations when formulating a response to a global attitude object. Moreover,
any untagged primary cognition is assumed to be valid until that primary cognition
is explicitly and deliberately invalidated within ones memory structure (e.g., Petty &
Briol, 2009; Rucker, Briol, & Petty, 2011).
Having stated the basic component of our theoretical model, let us address its
underlying mechanisms associated with each component:
Proposition 5: The process of retrieving a relevant belief and its respective primary
cognition is governed by the relatively unconscious, and automatic activation of
such components.
Proposition 6: The process of retrieving a secondary cognition is, in contrast,
governed by relatively conscious, and deliberative processing.
Within the present framework, we further hypothesize that belief accessibility and
attitude accessibility is governed by relatively automatic, spontaneous activation pro-
cess. Therefore when an implicit attitude measure is employed, ones attitudes tend
to represent automatically evoked responses without activating the secondary cog-
nitions (Olson & Fazio, 2009; Petty & Briol, 2009). In contrast, the effects of the
relevant metacognitions are assumed to be retrieved by more deliberative or explicit
processes, as the MODE model and the MCM approach suggest (Fazio, 2007; Petty &
Briol, 2009).
From this formulation, we further propose several possible linkages between
ones attitude structure that we have outlined and various antecedents of ambivalence
(Figure 4), especially from various communication processes ranging from inter-
personal, mass-mediated, and computer-mediated context. In the next section, we
describe several different mechanisms and working hypothesis.

How ambivalence is created (or reduced) from various communication

First, the proposed model predicts that ambivalence could be induced by the exposure
to competing construals of a given attitude object. Such exposure to competing con-
struals may increase the accessibility of differently valenced attributes (Proposition 1)
therefore creating some degree of inconsistency among attributes (Proposition 2: see
4C in Figure 4).

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Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

Examples of such processes can be found in many of the media priming and
framing studies. Media priming involves the short-term impact of exposure to the
media on subsequent judgments or behavior (Roskos-Ewoldsen, Roskos-Ewoldsen,
& Carpentier, 2009, p. 74), and framing effects further emphasizes the impact of
news frames on audiences interpretation of an issue or an event (Tewksbury &
Scheufele, 2009). Extant research has demonstrated the influence of exposure to
different media messages on the accessibility of different attributes related to a
given issue (Iyengar & Kinder, 1987; Kim, Scheufele, & Shanahan, 2002; Price &
Tewksbury, 1997; Tourangeau, Rasinski, & DAndrade, 1991). For example, when
participants were repeatedly exposed to a different story about an issue for 5 days in
a row (e.g., defense, pollution, economic issues), they were more likely to use that
issue when evaluating how the president was performing his job (Iyengar, Peters, &
Kinder, 1982). This effect likely occurred because the repeated exposure increased the
accessibility of that information so that the information was more likely to be used
when asked to evaluate the president (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al., 2009). Further, studies
on framing effects often demonstrate the activation of frame-relevant cognitions in
response to the media exposure (e.g., Price, Tewksbury, & Powers, 1997) or even
a temporal change in the weights of various attributes (Chong & Druckman, 2007;
Nelson, Oxley, & Clawson, 1997). Therefore, to the extent individuals are exposed
to messages emphasizing different frames (Chong & Druckman, 2007; Hmielowski,
2012), exposure to such messages may make multiple attributes simultaneously
accessible, thus increasing the inconsistency between the activated attributes.
Consider a study by Borah (2011), which suggests that framing effects can at least
temporarily increase ambivalence by increasing the accessibility of competing con-
siderations. In the one-sided frame condition, participants were presented with one
of two competitively framed media stimuli regarding the issue of a civil liberties con-
flict; one emphasized the value of free speech (e.g., KKKs right to hold the rally) and
the other emphasized public safety issues (e.g., concerns about the safety of the stu-
dent body). Further, in the mixed frame condition, participants were presented with
stimulus that had quotes emphasizing both the public safety and free speech frame. Of
particular interest, the result of this study revealed that, for those who were exposed
to the mixed frame condition the attitudes on allowing the KKKs rally in campus
were between the attitudes toward the two issues in the one-sided frame condition (see
Table 7 in Borah, 2011 for more details). In light of our model, it could be inferred that
such a pattern of data was, at least partly, attributable to the temporal increase in the
accessibility of competing considerations. When exposed to a certain frame, values
relevant to such a frame are, at least temporally, likely to be more accessible than prior
to exposure to the message. Consequently, for those who simultaneously exposed to
competing values (via mixed frame), the increased accessibility of the competing
considerations would require individuals to consider both of the values when asked
to express their attitudes toward civil liberties conflict.
Second, the proposed model also predicts that changes in the direction of a sec-
ondary cognition (Proposition 3 and 4) are also likely to be related to attitudinal

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H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

ambivalence. This is because a second-order cognition can magnify, attenuate, or

even reverse first-order cognition (Petty, Briol, & DeMarree, 2007, p. 274). Consider
the exemplary case illustrated in 4B in Figure 4, where the direction of the secondary
cognition regarding the negatively evaluated attribute gives way to its opposite (i.e.,
from false to true). Before this change, the negatively evaluated attribute is less
likely to be integrated into a summary evaluation because the secondary cognition
(false) suppresses such integration. Yet once the secondary cognition changes, the
previously suppressed negative evaluation is now perceived to be relevant, therefore
should be taken into consideration when a new summary attitude toward the attitude
object is expressed.
Considerable empirical evidence from the persuasion literature supports the
possible role that metacognitions play in adjusting ones attitudes. Blankenship et al.
(2012), for instance, report that a decrease in ones confidence in a relevant value
orientation is associated with a subsequent decrease in the support for the policy
associated with the respective value orientation. Given that the policy attitude is
often based on evaluations of the policy-related values (which are the subordinate
attributes of the respective policy), the decrease in confidence regarding a value
orientation (Proposition 3) translates into similar adjustments in his or her attitudes
toward the policies (Proposition 4).
Some of the research on interpersonal discussion networks and attitudinal
ambivalence also suggests the possibility that ones attitude is modified as a function
of ones metacognitions such as attitude certainty. Visser and Mirabile (2004) found
that those whose social networks were attitudinally heterogeneous expressed less
certainty and a lower degree of perceived validity in their attitudes. Levitan and Visser
(2008, 2009), and Levitan (2012) have argued that the mix of agree/disagreement
within ones social network may lower the perceived validity of ones judgment.
This diversity of opinions may signal that something important is missing in the
persons judgment, serving as a cue that the attitudes may need to be reconsidered
(Proposition 3). In contrast, when the distribution of opinions within ones social
network is biased toward the agreement with the focal respondent, such homogeneity
may signal that ones attitude is valid and appropriate (Levitan & Visser, 2008, 2009).
It is also possible that some communication processes decrease, or at least do
not create more, ambivalence. An example would be partisan selective exposure to
the media and opinion polarization following such exposure (Garrett, Carnahan, &
Lynch, 2013; Stroud, 2010). Partisan selective exposure is said to occur when individ-
uals tend to limit their media diet to messages that reflect their preexisting political
beliefs or attitudes (Stroud, 2010). Although only a few existing studies have explicitly
tested the possible linkage, ambivalence has been hypothesized to increase the selec-
tive exposure tendency as one may be motivated to reduce the discomfort caused by
internally conflicting evaluations (e.g., Maio et al., 1996; Newby-Clark, McGregor, &
Zanna, 2002; Valentino, Banks, Hutchings, & Davis, 2009). For example, Newby-Clark
et al. (2002) found a positive impact of subjective ambivalence on systematic process-
ing of proattitudinal information.7 Similarly, Nordgren, Van Harreveld, and Van Der

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Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

Pligt (2006) demonstrated that ambivalent individuals tend to selectively elaborate

information that is consistent with their prior attitude in an effort to reduce the eval-
uative conflict.
Politically motivated selective exposure has recently been the subject of an
extensive scholarly debate, following the evidence that selective exposure does not
necessarily reduce exposure to opinion challenging information (e.g., Garrett et al.,
2013). It is suggested that (a) individuals may engage in counterargument with the
belief-inconsistent information, where successful rejection of such message would
be emotionally rewarding and add more certainty to their existing attitudes. Alter-
natively, an exactly opposite explanation is possible such that (b) individuals may
perceive such belief-inconsistent information to be more useful (i.e., have greater
expected utility) in forming a correct attitude toward an issue.
In light of the current model, such scenarios could be neatly explained in terms of
metacognitive assessment toward belief-inconsistent information (e.g., 4B in Figure 4).
For instance, (a) one does not necessarily limit the exposure to belief-inconsistent
information because counterargument to such message may provide the opportunity
to explicitly negate the validity of such information (i.e., tag one of the evaluations
as not valid). Or, (b) individuals may perceive belief-inconsistent information (or
evaluations based on such information) to be valid despite the fact that such infor-
mation may not align well with their preexisting attitude. In either case, the metacog-
nitive assessment could influence the overall exposure patterns independently of the
valence of the messages (i.e., proattitudinal or counterattitudinal). Indeed, under-
standing patterns of selective exposure may require greater attention to the role of
such metacognitive judgments.

Conceptual issues in the process of creation and reduction of ambivalence

Modal/topical differences of communication effects
Does exposure to different viewpoints within ones interpersonal network create more
ambivalence than exposure to media outlets with opposing viewpoint? Is information
presented online more (or less) effective at reducing ambivalence toward political can-
didates than if the same information is conveyed in a face-to-face encounter?
Inquiries into possible topic and modality differences in communication effects
are indeed common (e.g., Chaiken & Eagly, 1976, 1983; Pfau, Holbert, Zubric, Pasha,
& Lin, 2000). To date, however, no systematic research has explored how different
modalities could influence the processes that involve ambivalent attitudes. The pro-
cesses involved in the proposed model (i.e., attitude accessibility, attribute accessibil-
ity, and metacognitive assessment), in our own view, do not seem to be dependent
upon the particular modalities or subject domain. Therefore, we anticipate that our
basic principles and propositions of the model should be equally applicable to a wide
range of modalities and substantive areas of interest. At most, any meaningful differ-
ences in the consequences of different modalities or topics for attitude ambivalence

34 Communication Theory 25 (2015) 2345 2014 International Communication Association

H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

are likely to reflect simple differences in the relationships between our key theoreti-
cal constructs. For example, one communication modality may have great influence
on metacognition than another. But we believe the basic processes will operate across
these different modalities and domains.
For example, exposure to different political viewpoints via interpersonal discussion
is more likely to increase ambivalence (e.g., Mutz, 2002) than a nearly identical type of
exposureexposure to opinionchallenging informationfrom mass media (e.g.,
Garrett et al., 2013). In light of our theoretical model, these differential patterns of
influence on ambivalence across different modalities likely reflect a differential influ-
ence on metacognitive judgments. Specifically, we would hypothesize that disagree-
able information presented by people within your immediate personal network has a
stronger influence on a persons perception of the validity or certainty of attitudinally
relevant beliefs than that same information presented by the media. Of course, our
model predicts that the differential effects on the metacognitive beliefs will translate
into different levels of attitudinal ambivalence.
Within the domain of health-related risky behavior, previous research sug-
gests that some unhealthy behaviors such as smoking are based on habitual and
spontaneous reactions that are difficult to regulate intentionally (Fazio, 1990;
Huijding, de Jong, Wiers, & Verkooijen, 2005; Rhodes & Ewoldsen, 2009; Rhodes,
Roskos-Ewoldsen, Aimee, & Bradford, 2008). Additionally, when attitudes toward
smoking are measured implicitly, studies also found that smoking is often perceived
neutrally or even negatively by smokers (Huijding et al., 2005; Swanson, Rudman,
& Greenwald, 2001). This suggests that a global attitude toward smoking may not
be a driving factor for smoking behavior. Rather, it suggests that positive and acces-
sible attitudes toward some aspects of smoking (e.g., smoking is tasty) are more
responsible for the maintenance of this habitual behavior. To the extent this is true,
the current model would predict that any communication intervention should aim
to develop a strong automatic association of a set of attributes that is of the opposite
valence (e.g., smokers breath is unpleasant) rather than cognitively bolstering the
already negative global attitude.

Under what conditions which pathway is most likely to occur?

One of the fundamental values of any scientific theory is to provide testable proposi-
tions (Chaffee & Berger, 1987). We believe that the model presented within this article
is testable, particularly given the developments in attitude measure that have occurred
during the past decade. But another important component of this involves the heuris-
tic value of the theory. Does the theory generate new research and does that research
inform our understanding of basic communication phenomenon? Below, we outline
several avenues of research to test some of the implications of this model. In part, this
will involve testing the boundaries of when the theory is applicable.

Communication Theory 25 (2015) 2345 2014 International Communication Association 35

Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

Prior attitudes and knowledge versus no prior attitude and knowledge

A basic assumption of dual process models of attitude formation and persuasion is
that people are generally satisfiers in that they will develop their attitudes using as little
energy as possible (Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). The
fact that people generally are satisfiers means that their prior attitude generally pro-
vides a reasonable basis for their future attitude so that people are unlikely to change
their existing attitude (e.g., Cacioppo, Marshall-Goodell, Tassinary, & Petty, 1992). In
other words, once an attitude is consolidated and stored in memory, it becomes more
difficult to change (Rhodes & Ewoldsen, 2013; Roskos-Ewoldsen, 1997). In such a
situation, creating a new evaluative association with the attitude object or increasing
the accessibility of differently valenced beliefs (4C in Figure 4) is not likely to influence
ambivalence. Research suggests that the new information would be easily negated
in light of the prior attitude, particularly when the prior attitude was held with a high
degree of confidence (Petty, Briol, & DeMarree, 2007). Thus, we predict that when
a prior attitude is held with a high degree of confidence, increases in ambivalence are
unlikely by changes in the accessibility in the relevant attributes. However, our model
suggests that it should be possible to increase ambivalence by changing the validity tag
for the attitude. In contrast, with a newly encountered object (e.g., Roskos-Ewoldsen
& Fazio, 1997), creating new associations or increasing the accessibility of differently
valenced existing beliefs is more likely to be a way to creating ambivalence. In such
situations, there is no prior attitude that may inhibit the formation of a new attitude
(Cacioppo, Petty, & Geen, 1989; Roskos-Ewoldsen, 1997).

The role of motivation and opportunity

Consistent with a number of dual process models, another moderating factor would
be the role of peoples motivation to form a valid and reliable attitude, and their oppor-
tunity to do so (e.g., Chaiken et al., 1989; Olson & Fazio, 2009; Petty & Cacioppo,
1986). Contemporary theories agree that people are more likely to rely on spontaneous
responses (e.g., attitude accessibility and belief accessibility) under conditions of low
motivation or low ability to engage in systematic processing. In contrast, retrieving or
considering a metacognitive response requires both motivation and ability to do so
(Olson & Fazio, 2009; Petty & Briol, 2009). Thus, attitudinal ambivalence (or even
temporal instability) is likely when multiple conflicting beliefs are accessible from
memory, particularly when one lacks the motivation or opportunity to retrieve asso-
ciated metacognitions, or a metacognitive judgment is lacking at first place.

How, and whether, vertical and horizontal ambivalence work together?

It is worth mentioning that under certain circumstances, vertical and horizontal
ambivalence could interact to induce attitude change via cognitive elaboration.
Previous studies on attitude change hypothesized that the amount of elaboration
(i.e., the number of cognitive responses to a messages) is not only dependent upon
ones motivation and ability (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) but also ones metacognitive
responses to his or her message elaborations (the self-validation hypothesis: Petty,

36 Communication Theory 25 (2015) 2345 2014 International Communication Association

H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

Briol, & Tormala, 2002). In brief, the self-validation hypothesis posits that (a)
confidence in ones cognitive response moderates the degree of attitude change,
and (b) this relationship depends on whether ones cognitive response is positive
or negative. Thus, when ones message-relevant thoughts are generally positive,
increased metacognitive confidence generates greater attitude change in favor of the
message. In contrast, if ones message-relevant thoughts are uniformly negative, the
self-validation hypothesis predicts that increasing metacognitive confidence inhibits
attitude change (Petty et al., 2002).
What is noteworthy in vertical ambivalence (i.e., mismatch between ones
implicit and explicit attitudes) is that it could stimulate people to engage in more
elaborative processing of ones own judgment in order to increase the attitude
confidence (Maio et al., 1996; Meffert et al., 2004). Applying the same logic as
the self-validation hypothesis, consider the hypothetical situation where a per-
sons attitude consists of (a) a negative evaluation of a racial minority when a
measure of automatic evaluation is employed (i.e., an implicit attitude measure),
and (b) positive evaluation of the racial minority when a deliberative measure is
used (Ewoldsen et al., 2014; Olson & Fazio, 2009; Rhodes & Ewoldsen, 2013). The
present model predicts that (a) in situations where a person is engaged in high
elaboration, vertical ambivalence would create even more thought elaboration
(or reflection) on ones own evaluations in an attempt to resolve the ambiva-
lence. Therefore, (b) the perceived validity of existing attitude (metacognitive
confidence) should be adjusted based on the extent and the nature of thought
elaboration (positive vs. negative). Furthermore, (c) this further could create hor-
izontal ambivalence (i.e., evaluative tension between differently valenced beliefs of
an attitude object) because previously held beliefs and their associative evaluations
should be adjusted accordingly to changes in the respective metacognitions. This
could translate into even more elaboration if the changes in the beliefs and their
metacognitions result in changes in the global attitude based on this horizontal
structure. In other words, the model would predict a dynamic relation between
vertical and horizontal ambivalence as the system of accessible attitudes and beliefs
and their respective metacognitions adjust to each other in an attempt to create

Conclusion and implications

In this article, we have proposed an integrated model explaining the relationship
between attitudes, attitudinal relevant attributes, and metacognitive judgments based
on the concepts of attitude accessibility (Olson & Fazio, 2009), belief accessibility
(Roskos-Ewoldsen & Fazio, 1997; Van Der Pligt et al., 2000; Van Harreveld et al.,
2004), and the MCM (Petty & Briol, 2009; Petty, Briol, & DeMarree, 2007). The
proposed model suggests a number of possible causal processes and related struc-
tures through which the competing processes interact, thus producing an ambivalent
attitude toward a given attitude object. Moreover, the current models postulates that,

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Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen

unlike existing models, an individual implicitly or explicitly considers relevant sub-

ordinate attributes and the validity of his or her evaluative judgments when forming
or renewing existing attitudes. As Petty, Briol, & DeMarree, (2007, p. 680) argue, an
attitude can be stored and need not be constructed anew each time, and, in most
cases, a single global summary evaluation should be sufficient for an individual to
respond to a given attitude object (Fazio, 2007). However, existing explanations of
attitude ambivalence do not address the possibility that integrating judgment-relevant
information could generate more complex yet flexible consequences. Moreover, it is
especially likely to be the case when an individual considers his or her attitude or
decision to be particularly important (Jonas, Diehl, & Brmer, 1997; Van Harreveld
et al., 2004) or when antecedents direct an individual in multiple and, therefore,
potentially conflicting directions (Alvarez & Brehm, 1995; Huckfeldt et al., 2004;
Lavine, 2001; Mutz, 2002; Nir, 2005).
By identifying gaps in the existing literature and addressing some of these
unanswered questions, the current model contributes significantly to the existing
understanding of attitude ambivalence. The current model offers a more inte-
grated framework to explain possible connections between sociological or political
antecedents and attitudinal structure. Despite a considerable body of scholarship,
different conceptualizations and their consequences in regard to ambivalence have
muddled any clear theoretical understanding of the ambivalence phenomena. On
the basis of working to synthesize various conceptualizations of ambivalence, the
current model provides a potential explanatory mechanism (e.g., attribute acces-
sibility and metacognition) and empirically testable assumptions and predictions.
Although some of the theoretical predictions advanced herein should be subjected
to empirical validation, the present model could potentially contribute to our under-
standing of how an individuals attitudinal structure, specifically in terms of the
interrelation of subordinate attributes and their metacognitions, is related to the
various types of ambivalence, as well as other relevant social cognitive processes.
Based on the purpose of advancing a more comprehensive theoretical under-
standing of attitudinal ambivalence and its procedural conditions, we hope that
this study provides a useful conceptual framework for future research on attitude


1 By considerations, we mean those elements that are predictive of the evaluative

component of the attitude including affect, beliefs, behaviors, and other attitudes.
2 Ambivalence is conceptually distinct from uncertainty, as uncertainty refers to situations
in which individuals do not have enough information to establish a reliable judgment or
evaluation (Alvarez & Brehm, 2002). In a similar vein, ambivalence is differentiable from
indifference, which denotes a lack of strong evaluations (Alvarez & Brehm, 2002;
Martinez et al., 2012). Likewise, ambivalence is conceptually and empirically distinct
from many other attitude-related constructs such as attitude importance, elaboration,
extremity, intensity, and the absence of attitude.

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H. Song & D. R. Ewoldsen Metacognitive Model of Ambivalence

3 Of particular interest is the question of whether objective ambivalence accurately predicts

subjective ambivalence. However, a substantial body of literature suggests that, subjective
and objective ambivalence, though somewhat interrelated, tend to be only modestly
correlated at best (Priester & Petty, 1996, 2001; Thompson et al., 1995).
4 Babrows (1992) problematic integration theory also maintains that interpersonal
communication can increase attitude ambivalence by adding discrepant beliefs. While
problematic integration theory is a general model of communication, it has typically been
applied to health communication contexts.
5 But Barack Obama is a good man My godfather is African American, so Id like to see
a change in the guard, too, to see that the doors are open for everyone. But my wife is a
doctor, and an attempt to nationalize health care could affect her pay. (Steinhauer, 2008,
6 This interpretation is further bolstered by the fact that both vertical ambivalence and
horizontal ambivalence require a more thoughtful (or deliberative) process beyond simple
automatic associative processes.
7 Although not exactly about ambivalence or the discomfort caused from ambivalence,
Valentino et al. (2009) similarly report the effect of anxiety on proattitudinal information
exposure on the web when participants were lead to believe that balanced information
seeking would not reduce their anxiety.

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