Either-or Thinking Is Making Your Life Worse
How struggling to recognize complexity is driving us apart
Posted Aug 19, 2019 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Your friend puts a mouth-watering piece of chocolate cappuccino cake in front of you. You begin to take a bite, pause, and wonder: "Is eating cake good or is it bad?" The answer is no.
If you eat literally nothing but decadent chocolate cake for the rest of your life, that life might be a short one. But a piece of cake once in a while isn’t too big of a deal for most of us. What’s more, everyone is different in terms of how much cake they can have and what the exact results will be. There’s even evidence that our beliefs can change the ways our bodies process food.
The number of variables involved makes cake eating a complex phenomenon—one where, unlike a machine following the same pattern every time, we can’t predict exactly what will happen. We have a general sense of what will happen on average.
Our thoughts or conversations often ignore this complexity and simply boost the pro- or anti- camp, as if the only options are to totally agree or be in total opposition.
Frequently, points are bolstered by stories that we can empathize with. Perhaps we'll do some reading and find a tragic tale about someone whose life was destroyed by eating too much cake. But while stories are powerful and shouldn't be discounted, we also need to ask: “Is this person representative of everyone, or could they be more of a dramatic case very different from the average, an outlier?” It’s possible to find a story that seems to illustrate just about any viewpoint we want to believe, so we need to treat them with care.
Too many important conversations are derailed by persuasive but overly simplistic stories, and because we don't take care when choosing what questions to ask. In their most basic form, these arguments turn into binary logic, where cake is either a pure one or a pure zero. Binary logic can be extremely useful in many cases, but applied to the wrong questions it can drive us apart. It might even contribute to our appetite for violence.
A study found that it wasn’t political views or level of religiosity that best predicted which people supported US bombings in Syria. A better predictor was the participants’ level of agreement with the statement that some people are evil.
If we believe that someone else is evil (a pure zero), we're likely to see ourselves as being like Neo in The Matrix—the one—totally opposed to the zero. When we think like this, getting our way morphs into an urgent moral quest. And the more confident we are that we’re "the one" who knows the only fair way to behave, the more likely we are to engage in and to justify extreme and disturbing acts to get our way. Researchers call this the “dark side of moral conviction.”
Our hyper-certainty—lacking curiosity, openness, and respect—can result in the worst forms of polarization because it leaves little space for positive relationships to be built. And we can be totally blind to the fact that the evaluations we’re making—categorizing people or ideas as pure zeros or pure ones—are our own concepts, not necessarily universal truth.
Educator and author Parker Palmer argues, “For all the power it has given us in science and technology, either-or thinking has also given us a fragmented sense of reality that destroys the wholeness and wonder of life.” When we see ourselves as wholly different from “others,” we can give up on trying to learn anything from them. We might not even listen to them at all, and just seek to drown them out or counter whatever it is they say.
So what can be done? I explore this question in depth in my new book, Are We Done Fighting, but there are a few evidence-based strategies that are simple enough to highlight here.
One tip that can help us get around overly simplistic thinking when we interact with someone we find challenging is to imagine their individual traits. Ask yourself, "What's this person's favorite vegetable?" That sort of thinking pushes us to break out of the categories that say “this person is a pure zero.” We emerge into more nuance, seeing the other party as a unique individual with a rich range of feelings and behaviors.
We don’t need to accept or respect what they’re doing necessarily, but we can still break free from simplistic thinking, and perhaps even set a new tone for the interaction.
Another useful technique that’s been studied is to focus on how we ourselves aren’t purely one way or another, but experience various internal conflicts, many of which remain unresolved. Are you the exact same person when you’re around your family as when you’re with close friends? These two versions of you likely have conflicting aspects. Most of us also have many conflicting aspirations and dreams. We long to be wild and adventurous but want security and to be comfortable. We want more free time but also to have more hobbies.
When we recall our own tendencies to behave in conflicting ways, and how much we change depending on the situations we’re in, we tend to stop over-estimating how different we are from the people we disagree with. We have a richer and messier understanding of ourselves and of other people. Not only can this lead to more rewarding interactions, but it can even make us feel less threatened, lowering our stress levels and improving our health.