Dichotomous Thinking

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Dichotomous Thinking: the Power and danger

Dichotomous thinking, also known as black and white thinking, is a cognitive process characterized by perceiving the world in terms of extreme opposites. It is a mental habit of dividing things into two mutually exclusive categories, with no room for shades of gray or middle ground. In psychology we sometimes refer to this as rigid or categorical thinking.

This way of thinking simplifies complex issues by reducing them to binary choices. It can be a useful cognitive tool in certain situations, such as when making quick decisions or sorting information efficiently. However, dichotomous thinking becomes problematic when it is overused or applied to every aspect of life, as it can lead to limited perspectives and missed opportunities for growth.

Key Definition:

Dichotomous thinking is a style of rigid, categorical thinking that perceives and judges the world in terms of extremes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

Benefits of Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous thinking is a resource saving process. If we had to reevaluate every small stimuli from our environments the massive flow of information would paralyze our ability to act. Leonard Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist and mathematician, wrote “categorization is one of the most important mental acts we perform, and we do it all the time” (Mlodinow, 2013, Kindle location: 2,525).

Because life for the dichotomous thinker is simplified between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions are easier. They can quickly identify the good and shun the bad.

Survival often benefits from speedy decisions. I don’t need to evaluate the intentions of an animal, such as a bear, when I can quickly and unconsciously place it in a category. I know it is most likely dangerous without thought, hastening a protecting reaction. Unconscious processes, such as dichotomous thinking allow us to devote precious cognitive resources to other tasks of survival and thriving.

Dangers of Dichotomous Thinking

However, our mental shortcuts also create dangers. Mlodinow warns, “merely placing objects in groups can affect our judgment of those objects. So while categorization is a natural and crucial shortcut, like our brain’s other survival-oriented tricks, it has its drawbacks.” He explains, “when we categorize, we polarize. Things that for one arbitrary reason or another are identified as belonging to the same category seem more similar to each other than they really are, while those in different categories seem more different than they really are. The unconscious mind transforms fuzzy differences and subtle nuances into clear-cut distinctions. Its goal is to erase irrelevant detail while maintaining information on what is important” (Mlodinow, 2013, Kindle location: 2,560).

Dichotomous thinkers, explains Seymore Epstein, “view people who disagree with them not simply as having a different opinion but as being in error.” They are often judgmental and intolerant. For the dichotomous thinker, the value of a person is easy. If you agree with me you are wonderful; however, if you oppose me then you’re “a horrible person.” For the narrow-minded dichotomous thinker, the value of a person is quickly determined and easily flips with the slightest provocation.

Aaron Beck identified dichotomous thinking as a thinking error associated with depression, contributing to his theory of depression and the cognitive triad. “Dichotomous thinking involves a kind of cognitive rigidity that leads to a polarized perception of reality” (Kawabata, et al., 2021). Dichotomous thinking is also related to several personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder (2021).

Identifying Dichotomous Thinking

We can identify some forms of dichotomous thinking by examining our words. We may find absolutes such as ‘none, always, and never’ cleverly woven in our thoughts and beliefs. These seemingly benign words are far from harmless, locking our minds into tightly wound beliefs that reject the grandness and awe of life.

Perfectionism is a symptom of dichotomous thinking. The weight of perfection looms darkly around those that can’t stomach the reality of our humanness. Rarely does a quality stand singularly as good or bad. Accordingly, balance and integration typically are a better mode to measure worth.

Complexity, Critical Examination and Dichotomous Thinking

One of the main features of dichotomous thinking is the tendency to see the world in absolutes, where things are either completely good or completely bad, right or wrong. This rigidity can create a polarized mindset that hinders critical thinking and understanding of nuance. It often leads to exaggerated and simplistic judgments, leaving no space for alternatives or multiple perspectives.

Relationships and Dichotomous Thinking

In interpersonal relationships, dichotomous thinking may lead to conflict and misunderstandings. People who engage in this type of thinking may struggle to empathize with others’ viewpoints or offer compromise. This can result in strained relationships and a lack of effective communication.

Expanding Limited Dichotomous Thinking Patterns

Breaking free from dichotomous thinking involves developing cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness. Here are a few strategies to help transcend this mindset:

  1. Recognize the shades of gray: Train yourself to question the absoluteness of your beliefs. We can mindfully explore different situations and possibilities. Acknowledging that the world is rarely as simple as black and white as we first think may spur deeper reflection.
  2. Seek multiple perspectives: Expand your horizons by listening to diverse viewpoints and considering alternative opinions. Engaging in productive conversations and seeking out different sources of information can help broaden your understanding of complex issues.
  3. Embrace uncertainty: Accept that uncertainty is a natural part of life. Instead of fearing it, view uncertainty as an opportunity for growth and learning. Understand that not everything can or should be neatly categorized.
  4. Practice critical thinking: Develop your ability to analyze and evaluate information critically. Look for evidence, weigh different arguments, and refrain from jumping to hasty conclusions. Encourage yourself to think in shades of gray rather than settling for simplistic dichotomies.
  5. Cultivate empathy: Put yourself in others’ shoes and try to understand their perspectives. Recognize that people have different backgrounds, experiences, and beliefs. By empathizing with others, you can appreciate the complexity of their thoughts and emotions.

A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic

In conclusion, dichotomous thinking can be a useful cognitive tool when used sparingly, but it becomes problematic when applied rigidly to every aspect of life. Accordingly, by recognizing the limitations of dichotomous thinking and actively embracing complexity, we can develop a more open-minded and well-rounded approach to understanding the enormous world around us.

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

Kawabata, Takeyasu; Abe, Naohiko; Wakai, Takafumi (2021). The Effects of Dichotomous Thinking on Depression in Japanese College Students. Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology. DOI: 10.5539/jedp.v11n1p28

Mlodinow, Leonard (2013). Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Vintage; Illustrated edition.

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