Dichotomous Thinking

Here’s an interesting exercise. Are the following things good or bad? Make a decision on each one, then continue:

  • Free trade
  • The theory of evolution
  • Teachers unions
  • Store brand foods
  • Offshore drilling
  • Door to door sales
  • Justin Bieber
  • Saying the pledge of allegiance at school
  • Outsourcing
  • The Yankees
  • Spam (the meat)

Originally I wanted to make this into some sort of poll or survey because I was curious about how many of my family and friends are Bieber fans (you know who you are). But really the purpose of this was to highlight an interesting human tendency: Dichotomous thinking.

Dichotomous thinking is the tendency to think in extremes. Us humans like to see things as good or bad, black or white, totally awesome or totally sucks. I’m guessing that when taking the survey above, you didn’t even question the fact that something on the list should be categorized as anything other than “good” or “bad.” You were perfectly comfortable with only having those two options. The fact is, humans label things as “good” or “bad” all the time.

The real world is much more complex. Everything has pros and cons. There are a spectrum of arguments for any particular choice. You can spin an idea in thousands of different ways. Nothing is purely good or bad. Not nuclear weapons, not Fascism, not farm subsidies. And yet we still use those labels (“good” and “bad”).

Why? The human brain, the pinnacle of evolution, the magnum opus of all creation… is lazy. Incredibly lazy. We are built to conserve energy and your brain doesn’t like to think unless it has to. Why do you think we came up with these super convenient labels of “republican” and “democrat?” Here’s a hint. What if every election we had to consider every possible candidate and each of their positions on all major political issues? It would be a disaster. People would spend all their time researching, and no time working, resting, or handling family matters. Voter turnout would be abysmal. Instead, we bundle a bunch of relatively similar positions together give them these convenient labels and pick one. Then you call it good, call the other one bad, and move on to other issues.

It’s the same kind of mental laziness that comes up with all those clever stereotypes. You know the ones: skaters do drugs, computer programmers have no social skills, Polynesians play ukeleles, and many others. These stereotypes prevent you from having to actually analyze people’s attitudes and behaviors and determine if you can trust them during a quick encounter. It’s quick but that quickness comes at a cost. All dichotomous thinking comes at a cost: it’s just not accurate.

Of course, we’re willing to accept that cost. Humans are easily polarized, and we accept that. For an example, I’ll use the following two books:

  1. Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot
  2. Islam is of the Devil

Now, realize that I’ve never read either of these books, nor do I condone reading them. This is dichotomous thinking in its finest (although, part of it is marketing. How would it affect book sales if Al Franken titled his book “Rush Limbaugh is Sometimes a Big Fat Idiot.”) It is an interesting exercise to look at the reviews these books have received on Amazon.com. By and large, people react to these authors viewpoints by either strongly agreeing or strongly disagreeing. For both of these books there are more 1-star or 5-star reviews than 2, 3, and 4-star reviews combined.

Dichotomous thinking is a part of life that isn’t going away anytime soon. But as it is with all human cognitive flaws, it’s always best to at least be aware that you are a biased, cognitively lazy creature with a lack of accurate information.

Whether you like Justin Bieber or not.