Life is not a zero-sum game, and there’s hardly ever just one right answer.

There are times and places where dichotomous thinking is the best possible use of your mind, because sometimes life really is the proverbial black or white – which is to say it’s a matter of this or that, right or wrong, left or right, good or bad, up or down. 

When is it appropriate to think in terms of black and white? When it comes to words or actions that could harm another, when it comes to a choice that could help someone else, when it comes to following just laws, when it comes to decision making that can keep you safe, and so forth. Then again, even in matters of protecting health, wellness, or life and limb, are things ever truly black and white? Just think of the classic ethics dilemma known as the “Trolley Problem!” That’s the thought experiment where you can take no action and allow five people to be struck and killed by a runaway trolley car, or take direct action and divert the trolley to where it will kill one person who was not initially at risk. It gets harder to “answer” the more you think on it.

What is dichotomous thinking, exactly? Also called polarized thinking, simply put, it is viewing life in binary terms; it is thinking there are two answers to any given question, a right answer and a wrong one, without a middle ground or other outcomes to consider. Missing from black and white thinking are not only shades of gray, but also, of course, color. And frankly speaking, the gray areas and the colorful ones are usually what make life more interesting, rewarding, and navigable. Black and white thinking may seem to make the world a more concrete, easier place to handle, but it can be so limiting it will stifle your potential to grow and thrive in work, love, friendships, and self.

How? Because when you’re stuck thinking in terms of black and white, you’re missing a million shades of possibility.

Everyday Examples of the Problem of Dichotomous Thinking

young man thinking
(Photo by Quinton Coetzee on Unsplash)

We are going to lay out three examples of dichotomous thinking that you may well come across in the course of any given day. In each case, read the imagined thought process and see where the flaw in the thinking comes in, then imagine yourself the potential negative ramifications that can be caused by such an approach.

All or Nothing: “Stacy got the last slice of cake and it looks delicious; I know she would probably share a part of it with me if I asked, but I don’t want a part, I want it all, so I won’t ask, and then I’ll end up with… nothing.”

Single Issue Voting: “I hate everything about this politician’s platform except the fact that she wants to ban the death penalty, which is very important to me, so I will vote for her even though I disagree with her stances on every other major issue.”

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With Me or Against Me: “Tom would not invest in my new small business venture, so even though he was polite when he said no, he is not supporting me, so he is trying to make me fail; I will try to drive his shop out of business once I am successful!”

A petty example, that first one, an all-too-common example, the second, and an extreme example, the third, but all demonstrate the limiting and even problematic approach that black and white thinking can cause. Once you start seeing issue like these (and so much more) in terms of black and white, are entering into a mode best illuminated by a common metaphor: not seeing the forest for the trees. In other words, we are starting to limit ourselves and, potentially, to make bad life choices based on that restricted, narrow view.

Sometimes, though, dichotomous thinking is more than just a limited way of thinking: sometimes it’s a symptom of a different issue.

Dichotomous Thinking Is Not Indicative of a Mental Disorder, It Can Be a Symptom

man at water
(Photo by Yoal Desurmont on Unsplash)

When many people hear the term “dichotomous thinking,” immediately called to mind is borderline personality disorder, or BPD. Briefly defined, according to the Mayo Clinic, BPD is: “A mental health disorder that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life. It includes self-image issues, difficulty managing emotions and behavior, and a pattern of unstable relationships.”

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People with BPD often demonstrate dichotomous thinking in the form of wanting all of another person’s attention and affection or else angrily rejecting them wholesale, in rapidly establishing lofty goals and aspirations only to quickly abandon them, and in the engagement of risky and destructive behaviors in one period but a retreat to extremely cautious, isolating behaviors in another.

These diametrically opposed and seemingly incongruous modes of thought and action are indeed dichotomous and are common with BPD, but dichotomous thinking alone is not a reason to assume you or anyone else is dealing with borderline personality disorder. 

How to Break a Cycle of Polarized Thinking

If you are concerned that you or a friend, colleague, or loved one is dealing with a mental disorder like borderline personality disorder, it’s best to enlist the help of a trained and trusted mental health professional. If, on the other hand, you have identified a tendency toward dichotomous thinking that is not a symptom of an underlying issue, there are strategies you can use to stop thinking in terms of black or white.

The most basic but often the most helpful thing you can do is to write out the issue at hand, listing as many options and answers as you can come up with. Creating lists forces the mind to be more critical and analytical, and you will likely realize you already had more ways of viewing the issue at your disposal already, you just needed to take the time to work to and through them.

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If a deeper dive into your own thoughts on a matter do not help you come up with other solutions than those you first saw when thinking in black and white, next try bouncing ideas of someone else – someone you trust, of course, and who knows and trusts you. Be prepared to be open and objective and to keep your calm, especially if you have not entertained another person’s views in a while.

And finally, remember that life is fluid. No one should ever define himself or herself entirely by any one metric: you are more than just your job title, your social calendar, your achievements to date or your goals for the future. You are more than your bank account or your zip code. And you are much more than any problems you may face right now, too.


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