I don’t spend much time in the middle ground.
When I’m faced with something that’s charged, weighty and complex, I’m often seduced by the idea of a binary: this or that, yes or no, right or wrong.
But binary thinking is limiting and often misleading. How can we challenge ourselves to break out of it, and discover creative solutions in the grey area?
Binary thinking is a distraction
For the past year or so I’ve been struggling with my mental health.
On bad days, I often catch myself thinking “Oh god, I hope I’m not going to become depressed or anxious again”.
But whilst there are diagnostic criteria that can tell me whether or not I meet the definition of “depressed” or “anxious”, the reality is transient and somewhat more blurry.
And although having a label can help with things like treatment access, on a day-to-day basis it's not actually that helpful for me.
Focusing on the question of whether or not I am depressed or anxious stops me from asking a more useful one: what can I do about how I'm feeling?
Binary thinking leads to inaction
Sara Wachter-Boettcher explains how binary thinking keeps us stuck with an example of how we—white people, especially—think about racism.
By imagining that we are either not-racist (good) or racist (bad), we act defensively, in a way we perceive is “safe”.
We avoid anything that might put us in the bad, racist camp, and if we conclude that we are not-racist, we may also conclude that our work is done and we don’t need to do anything else.
The problem, Sara explains, is that this stops us from thinking more critically about our behaviour as multi-dimensional, asking: “Where am I dismantling racist systems and where am I reinforcing them?’.
Limitations of the “two-sides” mentality
As well as causing us as individuals to get stuck, binary thinking can also create stalemate situations between people or groups.
I listened to a podcast recently, where Brene Brown interviewed relationship expert Esther Perel.
Esther explains how couples are often able to take strong opposing positions by disregarding the nuances in their own viewpoint—something she calls “splitting the ambivalence”.
For example, imagine a couple who’s considering getting a dog.
If one partner wants to get a dog, but the other is less keen on the idea, the partner who wants a dog may become more rooted in their position.
With their focus on persuading their partner that they should get a dog, they may set aside their own concerns about:
- vet bills
- who would will take the dog when they go on holiday
- what happens when they’re both at work
The problem is that these concerns do exist and are valid, but by taking up opposing positions on either side of a binary choice, they are left unattended and unsolved.
We see this phenomenon playing out in group scenarios too, often with much more significant societal and political implications.
In Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times article on Critical Race Theory, he discusses “binary consensus building”, which occurs when “people draw a line in the sand, oftentimes arbitrarily, and say that if you don’t align yourself completely with their solution [...] you must be sleeping with the enemy.”
Jay explains that creating a hard dichotomy between those who are for and against teaching critical race theory in schools has made it impossible for those who support it to challenge details of its implemetation, without a perception that they've "switched sides".
Binary thinking limits creative problem-solving
When we think about things in binary terms and create a dichotomy, we tend not to examine the weaknesses in our own position, or recognise the strengths in our opponents. We become more rigid and refuse to negotiate or compromise.
But the process of negotiation and compromise is often where solutions can be found—a point made by Adrian Rivera in his article, Just because you don’t believe in conspiracy theories doesn’t mean you’re always right.
The article discusses 2 opposing camps: conspiracists and reformists.
While the conspiracist “rants about shadowy schemes, nefarious figures, unseen hands and global cabals”, Adrian says, the reformist camp “preaches the gospel of rationality, a doctrine holding that even if all is not yet known, all is eventually knowable, and that if sensible rules are followed, chaos can be prevented.”
The 2 camps rally against one another at the expense of searching for solutions to some of the urgent global challenges we face.
Can we shift binary thinking with humility?
Adrian Rivera argues that part of the solution may be found in cultivating humility, asking:
“What would Covid messaging have looked like if humility had been built into the stories we told about masks and vaccines? If we had understood them to be highly effective preventive measures, rather than either silver bullets or ruses, would they have mutated into symbols, into sharp ideological lines dividing the nation?”
Perhaps if we were more humble and better at making room for our own position to be imperfect, we'd be better placed to recognise and prepare to deal with pitfalls.
Allowing multiple things to be true
There’s also value in challenging the binary in our language, finding opportunities to swap “but” for “and”. This subtle shift helps us move away from false dichotomies, allowing multiple things to be true.
To invoke another Sara-Wachter-Boettcher-ism, I like this example she shared last year on Twitter, on allowing space for our own suffering whilst recognising our privilege and helping others.
Rather than saying “I know I’m lucky in lots of ways and I’d like to do more to help, but I’m really struggling”, we can shift our thinking to recognise that we are finding things hard, and we have resources to help ourselves and others.
Over to you
I’m only just beginning to recognise the limits of my own binary thinking, and exploring ways to challenge it.
If you’ve got any experiences or thoughts you’d like to share on this subject, get in touch, I’d love to hear them.