Behavioral and Neurophysiological Assessment of Ambivalence in Online Environments

Information representations such as ratings and reviews play an important role in assisting users to make decisions in online environments. Prior information systems (IS) research has mostly focused on the role of extreme valence, i.e., positivity and/or negativity of information, portrayed by such representations. Yet this bipolar approach discounts how coexistence of positivity and negativity, i.e., ambivalence, or their absence, i.e., indifference, are formed and resolved into distinct attentional processes and outcomes such as purchase decisions, relative to extreme valence. We theorize how and why the valence of information projected through such representations may elicit mixed feelings and influence decision-making in online environments. We conduct four randomized controlled experiments, including an electroencephalography (EEG) study, to disentangle the influence of ambivalence and indifference on decision-making in an online shopping context. We find that ambivalence and indifference to online information distinctly influence attention and purchase decisions relative to positivity and negativity. Our findings further suggest the inability of the incumbent bipolar representations, such as the widely implemented star-rating system, in capturing mixed feelings expressed in online content. We propose a bivariate intervention that overcomes limitations of bipolar representations by not only discerning ambivalence from indifference, but also amplifying purchase decisions for products with ambivalent information by at least 50 percent compared to the incumbent bipolar representations. Our findings advance ongoing research on the role of information valence in online environments and suggest implications for practice.

Accepted for publication at MIS Quarterly; pending copy-editing.