Dichotomous thinking is black and white thinking. Also known as all or nothing thinking or either/or thinking. With dichotomous thinking there is no grey area. Actions, people and situations are viewed in a binary manner. People are good or bad, smart or dumb, successes or failures. Actions are right or wrong,
Key indicators of dichotomous thinking include terms and phrases such as “always” or “never” or “every” and “all.”
Dichotomous thinking is often inaccurate and is an oversimplification of the world. Things are rarely 100% one thing or the other. Grey areas do exist.
Dichotomous thinking is especially prevalent in children and adolescents, and is also common in some mental disorders, such as borderline personality disorder.
Unfortunately, our news media (all sides) and political environment tend to promote dichotomous thinking.
Joke #1: There are 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary and those who do not.
Joke #2: There are two types of people in the world, those who believe there are two types of people and those who do not.
Opposite of dichotomous thinking is dialectical thinking which seeks to harmonize two opposing viewpoints. Here’s a description of dialectical thinking from Professor Anthony V. Manzo of UMKC:
Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures. Dialectical thinking is a form of analytical reasoning that pursues knowledge and truth as long as there are questions and conflicts.
Dialectical thinking holds that seemingly opposing thoughts can both be true. It recognizes that people with differing points of view can both be right and can both be wrong. Dialectical thinking leads to understanding that opposite propositions can be true at the same time.
Dichotomous vs. Dialectical Thinking
Dialectal thinking can be hard. It can give rise to cognitive dissonance which occurs when we are confronted with conflicting beliefs and according to Simply Psychology “produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.” Holding opposing beliefs in one’s head actually causes what feels like physical pain. We often retreat to dichotomous thinking to relieve that pain. It is easier to view many areas of the world in black and white rather than accept conflicting, nuanced reality.
Here is an exercise in the political realm to flex your dialectical thinking muscles:
- If you are left-leaning, or otherwise not a fan of Donald Trump, think about what policies or views he has that are positive or with which you agree. If your reaction is “NOTHING! Trump is horrible!” then you are firmly ensconced in dichotomous thinking. (For example, if Obama said that we need to get tougher on China with respect to trade, would you agree? )
- Likewise, if you are conservative, what positives will result from the Dems winning the house and electing Nancy Pelosi as speaker? What benefits will accrue from the Democrats having a bigger seat at the table? If your reaction is “NOTHING! Pelosi and then Dems have horrible policies!” then you are likely thinking in a dichotomous manner. (For example, what if Trump said “I’ve changed my mind, if we are going to spend billions on border security there are a lot better areas on which to spend than building a wall” – what would you think? Or if he said “we shouldn’t repeal the ACA, it is very important to preserve its pre-existing conditions protections and health insurance access, but there are improvements to the law we can make.”)
It is possible that depending on your worldview, the above exercise caused actual pain. Try searching out things about which you feel strongly and find the grey areas and opposing views.