Mark B. Baer, Esq.

Empathy and Relationships


When Binary Thinking Is Involved, Polarization Follows

Anxiety from a lack of toleration for ambiguity leads to binary thinking.

Posted Jan 27, 2017

I’ve come to recognize a pattern when communicating with certain individuals which leaves me feeling completely and utterly frustrated. Regardless of topic, the pattern involves what observers even notice as one-sided conversations which occur when communicating with someone who is thinking in a binary manner. 

When the brain reacts in a binary way, it leads to quick, irrational decisions and action; when a dialogue is engaged between the emotional and rational parts of the brain…. We can come to believe that reality is defined by two mutually exclusive categories….  

Events are thus construed as dilemmas to be resolved in favor of one alternative or the other. However, the inherent tension leading to polarization conceals an important developmental opportunity, if we ‘hold’ the tension long enough to permit exploration, differentiation, and resolution by a third, ‘mediating’ element.

'Healthy' groups are not those that avoid conflict and never fall prey to binary thinking and polarization. This is impossible in any case and would arrest progress and development even if it were possible. Rather, healthy groups are those that allow a third element to emerge. With the arrival of a third element, the dynamic shifts from a binary one to—at least potentially —a more balanced and inclusive one…. For development to occur, the group needs to incorporate the capacity to harness the energy produced by polarization and use it to transcend binary thinking in favor of more sophisticated forms of decision making when dealing with internal and external realities….

If the conflict were fundamentally a rational one, the decision-making process could proceed in an Adult manner…. But given that the principal characteristic of a polarity in group conflict is the high emotional charge… the appeal to rational intellectual arguments is fruitless.”

Such binary thinking frequently rears its ugly head when it comes to LGBT people. 

A recent example with regard to homosexuality went as follows:

Homosexuality is wrong…. Anyhow, to address your questions.

What life experiences led you to feel the way you do?

I can’t point to any particular thing (life experience, if you like) that’s made me feel this way. Looking at it logically, we have noses to breathe through, though we can now make adjustments if we like. We have ears to hear through, though we can put all manner of things in them. We have sex organs, which we seem to do all kinds of things with, even outside our own species. Looking at these organs, to me at least, the logic of the universe indicates that, as sexual creatures, the male and female are meant to go together. In short, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. We're given these bodies and should behave responsibly with them.

What facts would you need to know to cause you to question your view on this issue?

I’m always willing to look at facts and, yes, even change my mind, but when I look at facts, but even Donald Trump has facts. I look at where ‘facts’ come from and I question them. ‘Facts’ sadly are so easily spun. Facts from government are in need of serious questioning and scientific facts are not exempt from critical thinking. Science can be (and I believe, often is) very politicized…. The truth is, we know so little really…. I’m not saying I’m my views on homosexuality are absolutely right, but I believe they are and I believe there is so much still to be learned about this issue and others.

Do you view black people wrong because they were born black? Do you view Asian people wrong because they were born Asian?

These are really sort of silly questions. Being black or Asian is not a behaviour or an affliction. I believe homosexuality is…. That being said, society discriminates against behaviours all the time. These discriminations are called laws… Homosexuality has become too political for honesty….

By the way, when did you choose to be straight and do you constantly keep that choice in the forefront of your mind because otherwise you would be sexually attracted to men?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had that sort of ‘moment’. I honestly think that if it weren’t for sex, men and women probably wouldn’t talk even to each other, we’re so different. Yet, I’ve never felt any other sexual attraction than to women. While we’re here, let’s clear a few things up about love and sex. They’re two different things. I love my sons. I don’t want to have sex with them. I love my best friend, but I don’t want to have sex with him. I love my dogs, but … do you get where I’m coming from? I don’t consciously even think about this.

If not, what on Earth makes you think anyone else is any different? 

I have the right to disagree, regardless of what anyone thinks of my reasons and I will continue to disagree until there is unequivocal proof (at least to my standards) that I am wrong. If such proof comes, I will change my mind.”

Other than that comment being extremely ignorant and offensive, the individual speaking in an binary manner explained that he doesn’t respect facts from the government or the scientific communities. Yet, he wants “unequivocal proof (at least to my standards).”

"Mental health professionals and others practicing any form of SOCE are by definition allowing their personal beliefs harm others.  Such ‘treatment’ has been fund to be ineffective, and often to cause severe emotional harm, including suicidality.  In other words, it is akin to psychological abuse.

As if that weren't bad enough, in 2015, a New Jersey jury found that ‘a nonprofit organization that claimed its so-called gay conversion therapy would turn gay men straight violated the state's consumer fraud act."

Furthermore, "researchers found resemblances in the brain's physical structure and size as well as the strength of neural connections among gay people and straight people of the opposite sex."

Moreover, "a few brain characteristics, such as density of the gray matter or size of the hypothalamus, do tend to differ between genders. It turns out transgender people’s brains may more closely resemble brains of their self-identified gender than those of the gender assigned at birth."

If gay conversion therapy is "akin to psychological abuse" and has been found fraudulent, then how does this binary thinker's belief align with reality?

Basically, since the individual thinking in a binary manner is unwilling to consider facts other than the sexual organs on a person’s body and his binary worldview of sexual orientation and gender identity, there will never be any facts he’d be willing to entertain. 

Why is it that people who claim to be straight don’t have to provide “unequivocal proof” that they are straight? 

Based upon everything I know, I take people at their word regarding their sexual orientation and gender identity.  However, I would never vouch for anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity other than my own. After all, I’m the only person who I’m with every second of every day and I won’t vouch for what people do or don’t do outside of my presence and observation.

Another recent one-sided conversation I had with someone thinking in a binary manner involved parenting plans for separated and divorced parents of minor children. That discussion was with an attorney who said, “Academically, for instance, it seems to me that having one parent have the child for the school year with perhaps alternating weekends with the other parent having a majority of vacation time would be in the best academic and social interest of the child as well.”

He wrote an entire article based upon this sincerely held belief.

I provided him with the link to an article titled Shared Physical Custody: Does It Benefit Most Children? that was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers on October 16, 2015.  I informed him that the article was based upon a review and analysis of all 40 studies done on this topic. "The studies included 31,483 children in shared parenting families and 83,674 children in mother (sole) residence families. The studies were conducted during the past 28 years."

I also shared with him the following excerpt from that article

"Even though most children acknowledge that living in two homes is sometimes an inconvenient hassle, they feel the benefits outweigh the inconvenience. One of the most beneficial outcomes linked to shared parenting is children’s maintaining a loving, meaningful relationship with both parents. Given this, we need to keep in mind that this particular benefit may not become apparent until later in the children’s lives. So although children who are living almost exclusively with one parent may appear to be doing “just fine” at present, the relationship with their other parent is more likely to be weakened or to be irreparably damaged as time goes by. And that disadvantage may last a lifetime….

In whatever ways each individual state eventually revises its new custody laws, there is clearly a shift away from the “one size fits all” plan where every other weekend and summer vacation with dad is considered in children’s best interests."

If he’d bothered reading the article, he would have noticed why for very good reason, the article states, “In short, it is not in the best interests of children for us to ignore or to dismiss the findings from the forty studies.”

He responded as follows:

"Seems like speculation to me not empiricism: 'Given this, we need to keep in mind that this particular benefit may not become apparent until later in the children’s lives.' So, he thinks a particular effect will result from a speculative cause (as the effect isn't even apparent to opine on the cause seems absurd). 'May', 'may', 'may' tells me the author doesn't base the paragraph above on hard facts but on personal beliefs, bias, and speculation.

And Mark, throwing gross numbers in a study and then stating a series of 'mays' does not transform a 'may' into anything approaching scientific certainty, or for that matter, even admissible evidence."

The U.S. Department of Education says the following with regard  to empirical evidence:

"What is empirical evidence?

Scientifically-based research from fields such as psychology, sociology, economics, and neuroscience, and especially from research in educational settings.

Empirical data on performance used to compare, evaluate, and monitor progress"

According to Wikipedia, "Empirical evidence, also known as sense experience, is the knowledge or source of knowledge acquired by means of the senses, particularly by observation and experimentation."

At this point, it seems essential to discuss the importance of empirical evidence in the legal system.

"Empirical evidence is evidence that one can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell; it is evidence that is susceptible to one's senses. Empirical evidence is important because it is evidence that others besides yourself can experience, and it is repeatable, so empirical evidence can be checked by yourself and others after knowledge claims are made by an individual. Empirical evidence is the only type of evidence that possesses these attributes and is therefore the only type used by scientists and critical thinkers to make vital decisions and reach sound conclusions." 

We can contrast empirical evidence with other types of evidence to understand its value. Hearsay evidence is what someone says they heard another say; it is not reliable because you cannot check its source. Better is testimonial evidence, which, unlike hearsay evidence, is allowed in courts of law. But even testimonial evidence is notoriously unreliable, as numerous studies have shown. Courts also allow circumstantial evidence (e.g., means, motive, and opportunity), but this is obviously not reliable. Revelatory evidence or revelation is what someone says was revealed to them by some deity or supernatural power; it is not reliable because it cannot be checked by others and is not repeatable. Spectral evidence is evidence supposedly manifested by ghosts, spirits, and other paranormal or supernatural entities; spectral evidence was once used, for example, to convict and hang a number of innocent women on charges of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century, before the colonial governor banned the use of such evidence, and the witchcraft trials ended. Emotional evidence is evidence derived from one's subjective feelings; such evidence is often repeatable, but only for one person, so it is unreliable."

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "Empirical research does not support the common assertion that statistical evidence is overvalued. To the contrary, several studies with mock jurors suggest that decision makers generally make smaller adjustments in their judgments in response to probability evidence than the statistical evidence warrants."

In any event, I noticed similar reactions to empirical evidence from a study on the effects of spanking children that looked at “five decades of research involving over 160,000 children.”

When this information was shared online, I saw people who admitted to having been spanked as children, completely disregarded the legitimacy of the research.  They claimed that if ‘as many as 80 percent of parents around the world spank their children’, then ‘80 percent of parents around the world’ disagree that spanking is ‘associated with detrimental child outcomes.’  They also pointed out that the law disagrees with these findings as well.

I could be mistaken, but there was a time in which everyone believed the Earth was flat.  Guess what?  Everyone was wrong!  

In other words, even if ‘as many as 80 percent of parents around the world’ disagree that spanking is ‘associated with detrimental child outcomes’ doesn't mean they are right.  Is the difference between right and wrong and truth and fiction based upon majority rule?  As I've said many times before, not all beliefs are fact based, regardless of how sincerely held such beliefs may be.

If current laws disagree that spanking is ‘associated with detrimental child outcomes’, does that mean the laws are correct?  We're not talking about natural laws, such as gravity, here.  Man-made laws can and do change, sometimes rather frequently. The laws in place at any given time may be the law, but they don't necessarily make sense and may even be counter-productive. Don't assume that just because something is ‘the law, that it is somehow divine.  In fact, they have annual programs in each and every field of law, wherein lawyers are educated about the changes in the laws in their field of practice that occurred over the preceding year.

It took my doctors a long time to diagnose my Crohn's Disease in that "diagnosis is often challenging, because many signs and symptoms are nonspecific." Nonspecific means not exact.

The following is an excerpt about medical diagnosis:

"The method of differential diagnosis is based on finding as many candidate diseases or conditions as possible that can possibly cause the signs or symptoms, followed by a process of elimination or at least of rendering the entries more or less probable by further medical tests and other processing until, aiming to reach the point where only one candidate disease or condition remains as probable. The final result may also remain a list of possible conditions, ranked in order of probability or severity.

The resultant diagnostic opinion by this method can be regarded more or less as a diagnosis of exclusion. Even if it doesn't result in a single probable disease or condition, it can at least rule out any imminently life-threatening conditions.

Unless the provider is certain of the condition present, further medical tests, such as medical imaging, are performed or scheduled in part to confirm or disprove the diagnosis but also to document the patient's status and keep the patient's medical history up to date.

If unexpected findings are made during this process, the initial hypothesis may be ruled out and the provider must then consider other hypotheses."

Discounting the importance of pattern recognition and statistical probabilities because of the lack of certainty is incredibly frightening, dangerous, and harmful. I'm afraid that the need for certainty in a world in which nobody and nothing is perfect is a tad bit problematic, to say the very least.

Social science researcher Brené Brown said the following with regard to binary thinking:

[W]hen we lead, teach, or preach from a gospel of Viking or Victim, win or lose, we crush faith, innovation, creativity, and adaptability to change…. When we teach or model to our children that vulnerability is dangerous and should be pushed away, we lead them directly into danger and disconnection.

The Viking or Victim armor doesn't just perpetuate behaviors such as dominance, control, and power over folks who see themselves as Vikings, it can also perpetuate a sense of ongoing victimhood for people who constantly struggle with the idea that they're being targeted or unfairly treated. With this lens, there are only two possible positions that people can occupy - power over or powerless…. Reducing our life options to such limited and extreme roles leaves very little hope for transformation and meaningful change. I think that's why there's often a sense of desperation and feeling 'boxed in' around this perspective....

The source of their Viking-or-Victim worldview was not completely clear, but most attributed it to the values they had been taught growing up, the experience of surviving hardships, or their professional training....

One issue that made these interviews some of the most difficult was the honesty with which people spoke about the struggles in their personal lives - dealing with high-risk behaviors, divorces, disconnection, loneliness, addiction, anger, exhaustion. But rather than seeing these behaviors and negative outcomes as consequences of their Viking-or-Victim worldview, they perceived them as evidence of the harsh win-or-lose nature of life.

Not surprisingly, over time, marginalized groups come to realize that the embodiment of their oppression is the result of binary norms.

Furthermore, as previously stated, binary thinking "leads to quick, irrational decisions and action."

When immersed in emotional turmoil, it’s easy to forget that we are each unique individuals who may interpret things differently than you. Therefore, it’s crucial to put yourself in other people's shoes and view things from their perspective— recognize their needs. To do so requires empathy.

What is empathy and why is it important?

According to Brené Brown, empathy is a skill set and that perspective taking is at its core. Perspective taking is normally taught or modeled by parents, which makes your doing so that much more important. Dr. Brown contends that we can’t take off the lens from which we see the world. We all view it differently, based on our information, insight, and experiences.

Moreover, Dr. Brown suggests:

"Perspective taking is listening to the truth as other people experience it and acknowledging it as the truth. What you see is as true, real and honest as what I see, so let me be quiet for a minute, listen and learn about what you see. Let me get curious about what you see. Allow me to ask questions about what you see.

Empathy is incompatible with shame and judgment. Staying out of judgment requires understanding. We tend to judge those areas where we’re the most vulnerable to feeling shame ourselves.

We don’t tend to judge others in areas where our sense of self-worth is stable and secure. In order to stay out of judgment, we must pay attention to our own triggers and issues."

In so doing, the dynamic can become more balanced and inclusive.