Dichotomous vs. Dialectical Thinking

by | Jan 8, 2019


Dichotomous Thinking

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 Break

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.

Dialectical Thinking

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.


  1. Another fantastic, and noncontentious, exercise on differences of perspective is for two parties in deep dichotomous conflict to listen to a piece of music that neither of them have heard previously. While listening, they each jot down thoughts and stand-outs they note throughout the track.

    After, they compare their notes and create two columns: one of points they agree on or both noticed, and one of points they disagree on or that only one noticed. They then discuss the items in the “similarities” column and following, play the piece again listening for the “differences.”

    I’ve heard this used in family and relationship therapy sessions and, following this exercise, couples have been remarkably able to engage in much more dialectic thinking about their conflict and, consequently, were significantly more capable developing resolutions.

    I wish I could cite the source of this exercise/study, but unfortunately I do not remember where I came across it and have been unable to find it, since. 🤷🏼‍♀️

  2. Is dialectical materialism the basis of Marxism?
    And IF dialectic is the basis of Marxism, why is it Marxism is (IF it is) the dominant ideology of the Soviet Union and/or communist China , there seems to have no room for dialectic ( my way or the highway)?

  3. My gut reaction is dichotomous think and when I’m in a heater argument that is where I go. However I can work out two opposing view points after the argument and make a better view point with reconciles the discrepancies after word. The truth is that the world is complex and almost everything is about trade offs. Where we get into conflict is where a situation is win/lose or lose/lose or we don’t see the win/win. (See game theory) Which happens most often in politics but also in a free market. Only 500 people are interested in a niche car but two car makers have made 300 each of that car because they over estimated the market. Well either they both are stuck with 50 or they engage in a price war to expand the market, or they try to make their offering more attractive, or (lots of different resolutions that require effort). But no matter how it is resolved they will expend or waste resources because the market was misjudged and we can’t go back and fix that misjudgment. That was a market failure. We far to often see this as something the government must fix instead of it being an opportunity. Sure the car makers have to be more competitive but that can make someone who thought that car was out of reach now consider that kind of car. This is called hidden benefits as opposed to what government solutions entail which is always hidden costs. Government solutions are rarely directly means tested unlike market solutions because the government always competes on price through subsidies. They have a lock on the compete on price and close that avenue to other competitors making them a virtual monopoly no matter what they do. Charity, education, transportation, health care, security, you name it they are selling it at below market prices. Combine this with the compulsory nature of taxes and you are seeing more and more of a concentration of benefits and a dispersion of costs. The more you think in black and white the harder it is to see this. The more you argue in black and white they harder it is to convey this. As for news complexity appeals to a far to narrow audience to get people to watch your ads so you can make money. As a matter of good business you will avoid this as people get more simplistic. Another market failure.

    • Good points — About the news media: Dialectical thinking often requires us to deal with our anxieties and inner conflict. While our struggle with our many internal contradictions is necessary for growth, we usually try to avoid them. Advertisers will pay good money to a news channel that helps us do that.

  4. Concerned that I live in the extreme dialectical realm which exasperates indecision. Wondering if this extreme mode leads to dissociation.

  5. Great piece John. It’s diabolical!
    I think that the exercise you propose for conservatives and liberals is great. We are a great country that is now seriously divided. Historically, these two things do not persist together long… And yes, there is a tendency for media to play up conflict to sell their copy. All of us should be aware of that.

    • On political, social, and economic issues, do we really disagree that much on the substance of them, or do our disagreements have more to do with solutions and what role the government should play in them?

  6. love this … how did you like “Winners Take All”?
    I spend a lot of time in the grey area.


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