What Would Aristotle Do?

The power of reason.

Dilemma Thinking may be Wrecking Your Life

Dilemma thinking may be wrecking your life.

Are you a dilemma thinker?  Do you spend many hours of your life ruminating about how you are caught between a rock and hard place and how your goose is cooked no matter what you do?  As a result, you can end up making your decisions by indecision.  That is, as a result of not deciding in due time, you can lose the opportunity to make a rational choice.  Have you passed up a business opportunity, a chance to forge a new relationship, take a much overdo vacation, or even spend a pleasant Sunday with the family?  Many people fritter away a virtual lifetime savoring the unsavory horns of dilemmas of their own design only to deeply regret it.

If this sounds anything like your MO, then here, right before your eyes, is the pattern of reasoning that you may be using to foreclose a more fulfilling life:

Dilemma Template

1.  I can choose either option A or option B.

2.  If I choose A, then I have this bad consequence.

3.  If I choose B, then I have this other bad consequence.

4.  So, either I have this bad consequence or this other bad consequence.

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So, you say, (1) either I can stay at my present job or get a new job.  But (2) if I stay at my present job then I’m stuck at a dead end job.  On the other hand (3) if I get another job, I’m low man on the totem pole and lose job security in this terrible economy.  So (4) either I’m going to be stuck at this dead end job or have to give up job security in this terrible economy.  Either way my ship is sunk!

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking goes nowhere slowly.  For, it keeps you ruminating and provides no solutions to your perceived problems.  The best bet is therefore to stop thinking in terms of dilemmas in the first place.  In addition to leading to decision by indecision, this type of reasoning is often inherently flawed. 

First, there are usually more than two options so not everything is, in fact, a dilemma.  Thus there are other options you can consider besides staying at your present job or getting a new job.  You don’t have to stay at your present job, at least not permanently.  Nor do you have to get a new job, at least not until you actually find a suitable job.  So you could look for a new job.  This option is logically distinct from staying or getting a new job. Nor does this mean that you have to quit your present job before you find a new job.  So, please don’t look for new dilemmas in order to justify continuing your regimen of dilemma thinking.

Second, dilemma thinking often exaggerates negative possibilities.  For example, while nothing is risk free (not even staying at your present job), some jobs offer more job security than do others.  So you could try to land a new job with an organization that has a track record of keeping most of its employees on for the long term.  You can look only for jobs for which you are qualified.  So it is a mistake to think in terms of the absolutistic and oversimplified idea of sacrificing job security.   Moreover, job security is important but it isn’t on par with “life itself.”  Nor are the risks incurred by changing your employer on par with “risking everything.”   Yet it is precisely such exaggerations that tend to keep people in a suspended state of dilemma thinking.  “Oh how awful, horrible, and terrible it would be no matter what option I choose!”

Third, it is possible to deconstruct dilemma thinking by seeing the same facts in a more favorable light.  “Well, if I keep my present job then at least I don’t risk whatever job security I now have.  And if I get a new job, then at least I won’t be staying at this dead end job. So either I won’t risk whatever job security I now have or at least I won’t be staying at this dead end job.”  Notice that you can turn your negative dilemma into a positive dilemma by exchanging the consequences of each option and then negating them.  Here is a dilemma conversion template that shows you just how to adjust your dilemma thinking to help you look at the brighter side of life:

Dilemma Conversion Template

1.  You can choose either option A or option B

2.  If you choose option A then you don’t have the bad consequence of option B

3.  If you choose option B then you don’t have the bad consequence of option A

4.  So, ether you don’t have the bad consequence of option B or you don’t have the bad consequence of option A

Accordingly, you can use this template to deflate your negative dilemma thinking because, for every dark dilemma cloud there can be a silver lining if you care to reframe it that way.  The upshot is that dilemmas are largely monsters of your own creation.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t any genuine (“true”) dilemmas.  Nevertheless, you are better off avoiding this type of thinking and sticking to proactive thinking.

Proactive thinking is thinking that aims at solving problems, not at savoring the unsavory horns of a dilemma.  Proactive thinking ends with a conclusion about what to do, not with one about how bad off you’d be no matter what you do.  “Well, should I look for a new job and see what I can find?  Why not! Maybe I can find something I’ll really like and is worth going for!”  This is proactive thinking because it raises a question (the problem to be solved) and gives you an answer (your decision). 

Being a proactive thinker portends a more fulfilling (and exciting) life than being dilemma-oriented.  Proactive thinking is hopeful thinking.  This shouldn’t be confused with pie-in-the-sky optimism; for proactive thinking should be evidence-based.  Thus it doesn’t mean telling yourself that you are qualified for a job for which you really lack adequate training or skills.  Proactive thinking is the golden mean between the extremes of blind optimism and blind pessimism.  Proactive thinkers are realistic, which means that they also see the brighter side of life—unlike dilemma thinkers.

Want more out of your life?  I urge you to become proactive.  Instead of telling yourself that life is a dilemma, go ahead and live.

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.


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