The Tyranny of Two
Liberate yourself from the bonds of two-valued thinking.
Posted August 18, 2010
Here's something to think about...
Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That's a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two - and only two - opposing possibilities.
These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.
Neurologists explored the activity of certain key regions of the human forebrain - the frontal lobe - trying to understand how the brain switches between tasks. Scientists generally accept the idea that the brain can only consciously manage one task at a time, notwithstanding the claim that today's youngsters are experts at multi-tasking.
However, some researchers are now suggesting that our brains can keep tabs on two tasks at a time, by sending each one to a different side of the brain. Apparently, we toggle back and forth, with one task being primary and the other on standby.
Add a third task, however, and one of the others has to drop off the to-do list. Scans of brain activity during this task switching have led to the hypothesis that the brain actually likes handling things in pairs. Indeed, the brain itself is subdivided into two distinct half-brains, or hemispheres.
Some researchers are now extending this reasoning to suggest that the brain has a built-in tendency, when confronted by complex propositions, to selfishly reduce the set of choices to just two. Apparently it doesn't like to work hard.
Considering how quickly we make our choices and set our opinions, it's unlikely that all of the options will even be identified, never mind carefully considered.
One of our popular clichés is "Well, there are two sides to every story." Why only two? Maybe the less sophisticated and less rational members of our society are caught up in duplex thinking, because the combination of a polarized brain and unexamined emotional reflexes keep them there.
The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: "Are you with us, or against us?" "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
Some will protest, "But it's obvious that duality is a fundamental aspect of nature. There's day, and there's night." (And what about the two twilights?) "There are two sexes - males and females." (And what about transgender, homosexual, and gender-ambiguous persons?) "Any game of sport has winners and losers." (And most can also have ties, stalemates, and rained-out games.) "You're alive or you're dead - there's no in-between." (And what about a person who's in a vegetative state and on life support?)
Our mental malfunction, as I see it, is not in considering the polarities - which we must inevitably do. It's in drifting toward a habit of thinking that casts aside the diverse alternatives and variations, and refers all of our experience to one of two extremes.
Curiously, part of our cranial craving for two-ness might be related to our own physiology: the human body is bilaterally symmetrical. Draw an imaginary center line down through the front of a person and you see a lot of parts (not all, of course), that come in pairs: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, matching teeth on left and right sides, two shoulders, two arms, two hands, two nipples, two legs, two knees, and two feet. Inside you'll find two of some things and one of others.
Again, our common language encodes the effect of this anatomical self reference. "On the one hand, there is X. But on the other hand, we have Y." Many people describe political views as being either "left" or "right."
Literature through the ages, as well the rhetoric of empire building, warfare, commerce, and modern politics have reflected the "good guys and bad guys" motif. "We are going to win because God is on our side."
If we Cro-Magnons had evolved with three arms and hands, or more, would we habitually think and talk in terms of several "hands?" Maybe there would be "three sides to every story?"
If it's likely that any one person's brain will tend to throw options overboard until it settles on a comfortable pair, then certainly our newsbakers have made dichotomizing their religion.
The popular press routinely constructs "news" stories around conflicts and differences between pairs of opposing people, factions, and ideologies. Bipolar conflict is the very essence of most of the news.
Option fatigue can affect all of us. During the 2004 US presidential election, an unusually large slate of Democrats lined up to compete for the job. The Republicans had already anointed incumbent President George Bush, Jr., as their guy, so the newsbakers had to quickly boil down the competition to one candidate per side. They simply didn't have the collective attention span to follow or report on so many candidates.
The press coverage immediately began to marginalize all except a small handful of the Democrats, and the unrelenting mantra of the news became "Who's going to drop out next?"
Okay, so we're predisposed to polarize. And not all polarization is dysfunctional - a lot of it is necessary and useful. The question presents: how can we improve our thinking and reacting, so as to liberate ourselves from the extremes of dichotomization? Are there some simple mental tricks that can keep us thinking creatively? Here are a few:
1. Have fewer opinions. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu reportedly advised, "If you seek to understand a thing, be neither for nor against."
2. Keep your opinions and conclusions on probation. Think of an opinion as a home-made theory - a temporary and limited interpretation of what you've perceived, open to improvement as better information becomes available.
3. Let go of the need to be certain about everything. Train yourself to be comfortable with a certain amount of ambiguity, "not-sure-ness," and the possibility of other valuable perspectives you haven't considered.
4. Seek the "third hand" - and any other "hands" you can discover. Ask yourself, and others, "Are there other options to be considered?"
5. Modify your language. Replace the word "but" with "and" as often as you can, even if it sounds weird at first. Practice it for a while and you might find yourself thinking differently in addition to talking differently. Try substituting "and" for "or" in some instances - to suggest that there might be multiple options, not just two.
6. Remind yourself every day that your "truth" is not the same as any other person's truth. As much as we enjoy that self-righteous feeling of declaring ourselves correct - in our own minds and world views - all truth is local to the brains in which it resides.
7. Avoid head-butting contests with opinionated people. When you get drawn into a debate, and you take a position that's the polar opposite of the other person's position, all you're doing is reinforcing their entrenchment. If you want them to discover your truth, why would you want to build resistance in them? Better to steer around the argument and make the sale another time or in another way.
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Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is also a leading authority on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: the New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are widely used in business and education. The Mensa society honored him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence. Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.