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.Clay Drinko
It is seeing the world from one of only two extremes. Black OR White. Left OR Right. Pro OR Anti. It is an oversimplification of sorts, and to reach such an oversimplification, the truth of the matter is often distorted by removing important, relevant context and nuance and filling the holes left behind with generalized assumptions. I believe there are many possible reasons why people do it and at times there can be multiple reasons why a person will engage in this way of thinking.
Some people genuinely are incapable of comprehending complexities in various situations, whether social, political, or emotional. They honestly do not understand that there is more to the situation they are looking at because they are either not perceiving the nuance or they cannot make the connection between the matter at hand and the context surrounding it. Instead, they see them both as independent of each other. Its hard to address this because those who are in this category are not often aware that they are. Although this is most observed in children, there are also adults who do this too.
It is a lot less work on the human mind to deal in absolute values, often we define ourselves by our absolutes. ‘I AM THIS, therefore I…’ or ‘I AM THAT, therefore I…’ and just like that we can align ourselves where we think we are, without having to do much thinking at all. It’s a form of laziness of the mind. Plenty of people do not think about things simply because they don’t want to deal with complex nuance and uncertainty. Uncertainty makes people uncomfortable. We don’t just do it to ourselves, we do it to other people too. How often do we assume someone’s entire social or political outlook based on a single statement?
Sense of belonging to a community
In a world where everything and everyone is polarized, not choosing a side not only means to stand alone, but worse – it means to be the subject of attack from both sides because the mentality of each is ‘You’re either for us or against us.’ To stand apart with different opinions is seen as an attack against the absolutes that the individuals in both groups have (often thoughtlessly) chosen to define themselves by. It is safer to move with the herd. And as humans are a social species, most do not enjoy isolation in this way.
In the Black/White image, we see that any colour that is darker than a particular threshold tone is assigned the colour ‘Black’ and any colour that is lighter than that same threshold is assigned the colour ‘white’ but in doing so, it is no longer possible to perceive and determine depth and shade from the image on the left, we are unable to see or understand the full picture. Most people would not be able to decipher the subject of the one on the left in black/white with that image alone, it simply is not an accurate representation. In the case of Binary thinking, we are left unable to determine nuance and context.
Binary thinking is closed-minded and is not suited to complex, rational thinking processes. Because for more complex scenarios (as most things are), the truth of the matter is lost in any context that is removed, therefore it is hard to view things as they truly are when seeing in black and white. How is it possible to make sensible decisions on that basis?
Binary thinking better is suited to simple decision making. What kind of toilet roll should I get? Should I cancel my gym membership? Should I just the self-checkout? Not ‘should we (the UK) leave the EU?’
This brings me to socio-political views. More often, we are seeing social and political influencers taking advantage of this thought process and using it to create further divides between people to increase their own following (in the case of social influencers) or to divide and rule (in the case of political influencers). In the run up towards the EU referendum we saw political parties choose sides based on their own motives and agendas, then create campaigns pushing narratives like ‘if you vote remain, you have no national pride and hate our NHS’ or ‘if you vote leave, you’re an isolationist bigot’. Of course, these statements were never made explicitly – as far as I remember, but those undertones were very strong throughout the campaigns. The strategy was intentionally deployed to divide the public as best as they could on this matter to gain the maximum number of votes in this campaign.
Regardless of what you voted, the point to note is that not only were the campaigns excessively polarizing, but the idea that posing a single yes/no question can determine the solution to a large collection of issues within the social and political scenes of the UK was illogical and misrepresented the nature and scope of the issues the UK had, and still has. Because in posing this broad, unspecific yes/no question, we found the country was pretty much torn down the middle. It should have been clear that to ‘leave’ or to ‘remain’ meant different things to different people.
On top of that we were left with new issues and unanswered questions. Nobody had thought of the kind of UK ‘independence’ we were looking at. But Scotland largely voted remain, so what about them? And of course, what about Northern Ireland? Deal or No Deal? All new questions created because the original referendum question was too binary and too simple to encompass the full spectrum of opinions of the public. ‘Leave or Remain’ was simply the wrong question.
There are other, more social examples of this. For instance, the relatively recent story between two American music artists ‘Megan Thee Stallion’ and ‘Tory Lanez’. This case should have been a case of hearsay, or ‘he said, she said’. Neither party could provide enough evidence to completely support their stories, and both parties demonstrated a lack of transparency to a certain degree in their accounts. Leave it for trial, right? Nope. If you did not side with Meghan, you don’t ‘Protect black women’ and a ‘Victim shamer’ and if you didn’t side with Tory, you were a ‘woke feminazi’ trying to ‘tear down the black man’. More Binary thinking for you.
Social and political influencers who exploit the binary thinking masses are aware that if they present a story or viewpoint as binary, they can galvanize mass support because a lot of people will not do the work to question the context and accuracy of the information presented. Those who question these narratives are mobbed by those who feel personally insulted that you would so question the narrative they have accepted. They are accused of being ‘snowflake lefties or ‘right wing bigots’ ‘Misogynists’ or ‘Feminazis’. ‘slut-shamers’ or ‘hoes’, particularly online where its easy to create your own sphere of influence because of how the algorithms of different platforms work.
This leads to silent masses. Because we are seeing that these opinions though loud online, do not always represent a majority view in real life. Plenty of people simply don’t want to engage in online discourse about their opinions, and I think this is exaggerated by excessively polarized media and social networking platforms. Plenty of Americans were shocked at the 2016 election results, and plenty of brits were shocked at the EU referendum results. A celebrity *billionaire* running for president? Yeah right. Leave the EU? For what and why? People did not anticipate those results because so many of the opinions they heard and saw online and in media were contrary to the results. Had they been able to account for the opinions of the silent masses, there would not have been such surprise.
There is a danger to those who use this method of manipulation. In aligning yourself with certain views and ideas to push an agenda or narrative, you allow yourself to be put in a box, under a label that may not correctly identify your stance in every situation. When the context changes and you adjust to the change, you are attacked by the very same people whose support you utilized to your own ends, they expected you to stay in that box, even though it allowed no room for adaptability and growth.
On complex matters, I believe we should all make a conscious effort to practice spectrum thinking instead. It requires more mental effort, and at times may bring us to truths that are initially uncomfortable to grapple with, but I believe in doing so we will blossom and grow as rational, understanding adults, improving the relationships we form with each other overall.