Categorical Thinking

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Categorical Thinking. Psychology fanatic.
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Absolute terms to describe our experience, expectations, or others impacts our moods, magnifying sways and increasing menacing anxieties and depressions. Life is malleable—not of sharp and unforgiving ledges. But here’s a dirty little secret, since categorical thinking has been scientifically shown to be correlated to anxiety and depression, we assumed the thinking caused the mood disorders. The assumption is wrong. “Many roads lead to Rome” in terms of depression and anxiety (Skinner, 2018).

​The neuro-chemical-environmental complexity converge and create unpleasant states. Those states then impact thoughts that further aggravate well-being. In psychology this is process is known as affective realism. Our use of absolute terms serve as markers, drawing attention to emotional deviations that are interrupting our lives.

Key Definition

Categorical Thinking also known as all-or-nothing thinking, is are human tendency to reduce people, things, and behaviors to a simple category. Typically, we label something as good or bad, ignoring all the qualities that don’t cleanly fit into our definition.

Absolutism is nothing new, these mindsets have plagued humanity throughout time. The greatest human tragedies of murder and war often sprung from evil absolute power regimes, unchecked through healthy balances of power. Absolutism infects more than governments; it also can wreak havoc in our own lives.

“Life is malleable—not sharp with unforgiving ledges.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

Unrealistic Judgments in Categorical Thinking

A categorical thinking style relies on rigid, unrealistic judgments. These absolute terms create unhealthy expectations that inevitably will leave us disappointed with others and ourselves. We must be keenly aware when we interject terms of ‘all’ or ‘never’ into our sentences. “I will never find love.” “I always fail.”

These absolute terms paint a dark view of our past and predict a dismal future. The all-or-nothing thinking judgements are simply wrong, increasing pain, and overwhelming our emotions by tainting the future with forlornness and remembering the past with sorrow.

Categorical thinking gives a stable but narrow orientation to life. Additionally, these highly rigid views lend to great fluctuations in emotional states. “Everything is wonderful,” quickly collapses to “everything I touch dies.” These thinking traps disrupt life, fuel bias, and depress.

Explanatory Style​

Martin Seligman describes absolute thinking as an explanatory style. An automatic thinking process for explaining the world. He explains that our explanatory style has three crucial elements: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization (2006). All-or-Nothing thinking adopts the worst of all three of these crucial elements. We suggest to our brain that the current condition is permanent, pervasive and personal. We tell ourselves we are doomed, and our organism responds accordingly.

Albert Ellis called this irrational thinking. He demanded his patients to “stop thinking wrong and start thinking right” (2006). His advice may be appropriate for us too.

Seligman, following Albert Ellis, also believed that explanatory styles are not permanent. They have been learned, so they can be unlearned. “Habits of thinking need not be forever. One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think” (2006, pg. 20).

Mindsets, Complexity, and All-or-Nothing Thinking

Science has continued to progress, and unlike the foundation of Ellis and Seligman’s theories, the complexity of depression and anxiety are not completely created by thoughts. While our thoughts may contribute and magnify maladies of emotion, they are not the sole cause of psychosis. The findings, however, do not dismiss the contributions of thoughts to aggravate feelings. Current studies continue to examine the relevance of thoughts on our moods (Sahinturk, 2018).

Categorical thinking speeds action, separating the world into definable categories of good and bad. Explicitly, the rigid thinker sees others as friends or enemies. These all-or-nothing approaches are not good for society or our felt experience of living. Life is much richer in color and texture than simple terms. Accordingly, felt experience explored through a complex web of gradations, seeing deeper into experience, is not rejected or glorified but appreciated and integrated into a fuller life. Escaping our rigid and absolute thinking by flagging words that encompass all-or-nothing descriptions will soften the flow of emotions, creating a more manageable life.

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Epstein, S. (1998). Constructive Thinking: The Key to Emotional Intelligence. Kindle Edition.

Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.  Vintage. Kindle Edition.

Sahinturk, D (2018, May).  All-Or-Nothing Trap. Psychology Today. May 2018 Issue.

Skinner, Q. (2018, March) A Whole Person Approach to Treating Depression. Experience Life. March 2018 Issue.

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