What is Binary Thinking?
Binary thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, happens when even complex concepts, ideas, and problems are overly simplified into being one side or another. The gray area in the middle is ignored or goes unnoticed.
Binary thinking helps us feel a sense of certainty. In a complex world, binary thinking can feel comforting. 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 we’re currently experiencing.
As Bob Johansen says, “Categories move us toward certainty, but away from clarity.”((Bob Johansen: Full-Spectrum Thinking))
If I’m worried about a global pandemic, racial unrest, and the future of my family’s survival, thinking about the complexity of the world can be overwhelming.
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 binary thinking.
The Problem With Binary Thinking
The problem with binary thinking is that it isn’t accurate. Gray area does exist. All the time. It may make us feel better to think in terms of this or that, us or them, him or her, but it’s not actually 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 actually bring us closer together.
So, how can we stop thinking in a binary way?
7 Ways to Avoid Binary Thinking
1. Try New Things
If we’re ever going to break out of the bad habit of binary thinking, we need to go to new places and try some 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 binary thinking is switching up our everyday lived experience.
2. Meet New People
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 spout off some binary thinking, and then your friends agree with said binary thinking, and the cycle continues.
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.
3. Cultivate Curiosity
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 in order to break out of your binary thinking.
I like to play a game I call Curious Detective((Play Your Way Sane: Thou Shalt Not Be Judgy: 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 really trying to get to the bottom of what makes this person tick. This helps me to be genuinely curious about other person instead of approaching conversations as an opportunity to gab about myself.
4. Listen With an Open Mind
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.
Break that habit by slowing down your reactions. Pause and reflect before you jump to conclusions, and if you do 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.
5. Build Empathy
Brene Brown writes, “Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth.”((Brene Brown: Daring Greatly)) This means that when you’re meeting those new people and trying those new things, you need to actually listen for the truth in their experience instead of trying to force them to fit into your preconceived assumptions.
A great example of this is happening with the Black Lives Matters protests the world over. White people are not taking perspective when we lump all Black people together or interpret their experiences through our own perspectives. Perspective taking is when we actually listen to their experiences and acknowledge them as truth.
We invite gray area 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 the multiplicity of perspectives.
People don’t all think and feel the same way, and that’s actually a good thing.
6. Don’t Fall for the Dunning-Kruger Effect
The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when you know a little about a topic and are, therefore, overly confident about your expertise in that topic((American Psychological Association: Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments)). 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 begin to realize that it’s more complex than they initially realized. Once someone starts to actually 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.
If you know a little bit about something, please also know that your confidence is probably unjustifiably high. You are not an expert and do not understand the complexities of the field yet.
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 actually just making assumptions and generalizations instead of actually being an expert in the field.
7. Embrace Uncertainty
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.
Johansen calls the antidote to binary thinking full-spectrum thinking. 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 binary thinking. 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 one 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 the experiences we have. 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.