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Binary thinking is everywhere today. You are either for or against something, conservative or liberal, or pro-choice or pro-life. The list goes on, from societal issues to team sports, and it’s to the point that things are spiraling out of control. After all, there are still current debates over wearing a mask or taking a vaccine to protect against Covid-19.
At the end of the day, all of this has to do with the human tendency to engage in binary thinking. It has seeped into our society and as a result, has caused a lot of issues.
Binary thinking, by definition, is thinking there are two sides, and you can only pick one. Also known as dichotomous thinking, this way of thinking becomes simple for us to process complex ideas and situations. The gray area in the middle of these complex issues is often ignored or goes unnoticed.
Binary thinking helps us feel a sense of certainty. The uncertainty of complexity can be scary and anxiety-provoking, so it’s no wonder people fall into binary thinking, especially during uncertain times like what we’re currently experiencing.
As Bob Johansen says, “categories move us toward certainty, but away from clarity.”
The world’s complexity can be overwhelming to think about, especially when thinking about the global pandemic, racial unrest, and the future of my family’s survival. No one understands everything about, well, everything. Therefore, our brains take a shortcut to make us feel better, and we oversimplify things into general categories, resulting in becoming binary thinking.
The problem with binary thinking is its inaccuracy. Gray areas do exist and are prominent in every issue. It may make us feel better to think about this or that, them or us, him or her, but it’s not how the world works.
When we’re engaging in binary thinking, we’re stuck making assumptions. As Johansen says, “Being stuck in categorical thought doesn’t actually involve much thinking at all—you just assume without thinking that new experiences will fit into your old boxes, buckets, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes.”
Binary thinking also leads to conflict and detachment. When we make assumptions about others by lumping them into preconceived categories, we aren’t being curious about them, and we aren’t trying to investigate nuance that might bring us closer together. Why bother getting to know someone when you already have a clear picture of who they are?
It’s a dangerous road because it leads to people making racist remarks or shallow connections with other people. That or negative thinking.
So, how can we stop thinking in a binary way?
If we’re ever going to break out of the bad habit of binary thinking, we need to go to new places and try new things. Life is complicated and messy, so when we get out there and do some living, we at least put ourselves in the position to encounter new ideas and perspectives.
Take a class, learn a language, find a new hobby, travel, or just do things differently than you did yesterday. Part of breaking our old habit of being binary thinkers is switching up our everyday experiences.
The same goes for meeting new people. If everyone in your social media feed looks and thinks like you, you’re probably stuck in a feedback loop. You’ve created an echo chamber where everyone agrees with you, and you don’t feel challenged or forced to think about certain ideas.
Break out of binary thinking by meeting new people—people from other cultures, races, religions, and backgrounds. But it’s not enough to just meet them. We also need to be curious and open to their perspectives.
Even when you don’t agree with someone, it’s important to ask lots of questions and approach each interaction with a sense of authentic curiosity.
I like to play a game I call “Curious Detective” when I meet new people. Instead of talking about myself, I pretend my job is to learn as much as I can about them. Either that or I’ll play a game called “Hard-hitting Reporter” where I pretend to be a reporter who’s trying to get to the bottom of what makes this person tick. This helps me to be genuinely curious about other people instead of approaching conversations as an opportunity to gab about myself.
Another way to look at this is the more interested you are in someone else, the more the other person will be interested in you. This allows a relationship to flourish into something that can, in turn, influence your way of thinking.
It’s also important to slow down. Our initial gut reactions are often examples of binary thinking. We tend to make assumptions and snap judgments before we gather all the information needed to truly gain clarity.
Breaking binary thinking is to slow down your reactions. Pause and reflect before you jump to conclusions, and if you find yourself mentally lumping things into broad categories, catch yourself, stop, and then try to see the broader picture.
And listen. Instead of trying to cram new information into the limited categories you already have, keep your mind open. Let new information be confusing and complex instead of fitting neatly in those binary categories you’re used to.
Brene Brown writes, “perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth.” This means that when you’re meeting those new people and trying those new things, you need to listen for the truth in their experiences instead of forcing them to fit into your preconceived assumptions.
We invite gray areas back into our lives when we acknowledge that just because someone’s truth is different than ours, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
This builds empathy. Brown explains, “empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding. We tend to judge those areas where we’re the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves.” Instead of shutting down because we feel shame or judgment, real empathy comes from honoring other people’s experiences and truths and being open to multiple perspectives.
People don’t all think and feel the same way, and that’s a good thing.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when you know a little about a topic and are, therefore, overly confident about your expertise in that topic. When people don’t know anything about a topic, they have low confidence in their expertise. However, as soon as they know a tiny bit, their confidence soars.
Then, the more people learn, the less confident they become because they realize that it’s more complex than they initially realized. Once someone starts to become an expert in a field, their confidence finally starts to gradually increase again.
Knowing about the Dunning-Kruger Effect is important if you want to avoid binary thinking. Our smartphones give us access to the basics about any and every topic. This primes us for feeling way too confident about our understanding of way too many things.
Stay humble and learn more before bragging and boasting about how much of an expert you are. Also, binary thinking should be a good clue for you that you’re just making assumptions and generalizations instead of actually being an expert in the field.
One way to curb this effect is to pick up some critical thinking skills. This 4-stage thinking process can help.
Finally, if we want to stop our binary thinking, we need to remind ourselves every day that the world is complex and that we don’t know nearly as much as we sometimes think we do. While this may cause anxiety, it’s an important realization to embrace if you want to grow intellectually.
Instead of making assumptions and broad generalizations, full-spectrum thinking is when we investigate the nuance and explore the gray areas.
That’s what we’re aiming for if we want to avoid being a binary thinker. We need to stop ourselves when we start making broad generalizations and assumptions and actively look for complexity and gray area. Slow down, learn more, and let there be more truths than the ones you’re used to. Sit with complexity and uncertainty and let it motivate you to learn more instead of being overly confident about your expertise.
Binary thinking, while useful for human survival, can be harmful as it limits our experiences. If more people primed themselves for full-spectrum thinking, we certainly wouldn’t live in such a disconnected and divisive world because more people would be engaged with each other’s diverse perspectives instead of lumping each other into preconceived categories. Start developing full-spectrum thinking and open yourself up to more possibilities.
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