Dichotomous thinking: what is it, effects and distinguishing features

We know that in life, not much is usually white or black, but almost everything moves in grayscale.

However, we often tend to polarize our thoughts and move. We will discuss this issue during this article. We will explore the characteristics of dichotomous thinking, the consequences of its use, and other issues of interest.

    What is dichotomous thinking?

    Dichotomous thinking, also known as polarized thinking, is that way of thinking in which only two alternatives are considered, totally opposite and mutually exclusive. It is also commonly referred to as all-or-nothing, black and white.

    As we anticipated in the introduction, this is a very common way of thinking with some people, but that’s not why it makes sense, or at least not always. And it is that, except very special circumstances, there are few occasions where the possibilities are really two and also differentiated in such a radical way.

    Therefore, we could say, speaking of dichotomous thinking, that we are faced with a way of seeing reality which presents a distortion. This does not necessarily imply to suffer from any pathology, as it is a phenomenon that everyone has experienced before, but some will do it more often than others.

    The subjects who must fall into this way of seeing the world generally have one thing in common: a way of being authoritarian. This personality gives them a categorical view of the world, which shapes their dichotomous thinking. In other words, it is they generally only consider two alternatives when it comes to making approaches: either all or nothing.

    But, as we said, there aren’t many situations where the decision is between option A and option B. Usually, life offers us a whole range of nuances that these people don’t. just not considering. Dichotomous thinking would be a way to oversimplify reality, reducing all the alternatives to just two, which are also often extreme.

    Consequences of dichotomous thinking

    Obviously, the use of dichotomous thinking has a number of consequences. The clean simplification of reality it is already one, because the person who uses this type of thought ignores a whole range of possibilities of thought and action which limit him to proceed, because he only considers two possible options, even if there are some. has a lot more.

    Another problem with polarized thinking is that it can tend to fall into different biases, as the person opts for a simpler mode of reasoning, which involves less use of resources (hence the simplification of reality than we have seen). By taking advantage of these thinking biases, the subject avoids information that can be very valuable.

    In fact, dichotomous thinking has been described by figures in psychology of Aaron Beck’s stature as an immature and primitive mode of reasoning. Beck sees negative implications in these thought processes because he considers that these subjects have difficulty identifying the different dimensions of reality that they consider.

    Also, Aaron Beck points out that people who tend to use dichotomous thinking usually don’t rethink their claims, thus, although they are wrong, it is difficult for them to twist their arms, varying their approach. On the contrary, they will stand firm in the categorical position.

    Other authors, like the Japanese psychologist Atsushi Oshio, go beyond the authoritarian personality we were talking about, and point out through his studies that subjects who generally reason in dichotomous thinking, generally score high on the scale. narcissism but at the same time they show a low rate of self-esteem.

    Not only that. Other personality traits of these people would be the need for control, a pursuit of perfectionism and a low tolerance for ambiguity. They are also radical in thought, rejecting choices contrary to those of their preference, because they only contemplate their choice and vice versa, without any intermediate possibility.

    But in addition, dichotomous thought abuse can affect the subject’s mood, as constantly moving at all can lead to the frustration of not always being able to impose judgment and consider that this inevitably involves undergoing the completely opposite option. Mood disorders can even lead to depressive symptoms.

    This way of seeing life can also have consequences for the establishment of appropriate social relationships., because also, these can be deteriorated if the person tends to move in the extremes and to try that only the alternative is proposed which proposes, unlike the other, which would represent all that does not want.

    Obviously, this is unrealistic reasoning, and we understand that it generates more or less frustration.

      How to modify it

      But don’t be pessimistic, because the good news is that dichotomous thinking is a phenomenon that can be reversed. Obviously, depending on the personality characteristics of the subject in question, this process will be more or less simple and will allow more or less flexibility in the new way of reasoning.

      Replacing dichotomous thinking with a broader way of thinking that considers the full range of alternatives available to a person at any given time is a way to enrich our mental and reasoning processes. Therefore, it is a path that increases the ability to solve problems, as there is a tendency to see new paths that previously went unnoticed.

      Working to encourage flexible thinking instead of dichotomous thinking is more effective if you are working at an early age. Therefore, it will be easier to accustom a child to reason using flexibility rather than dichotomy, than to try to do so with an adult who tends to constantly use dichotomous thinking.

      But the work is definitely worth it. The possible frustration that can arise from constant use of these reasoning will tend to decrease, moving us away from absolute postures. Likewise, one can experience a greater creative capacity and even more empathy towards the postures of others.

      We then see that flexible thinking offers a number of advantages which are more difficult to find if we opt for dichotomous thinking.

      Examples of dichotomous thinking

      After a thorough exploration of the implications of dichotomous thinking, it would suffice to consider a few simple examples to establish this knowledge.

      1. White or black

      We have already seen that dichotomous thinking involves all or nothing differentiation. For example, a person might consider doing a complex task that will take many hours, all at once, with the resulting fatigue, faced with the opposite option of doing nothing.

      As one can see, would rule out the whole range of intermediate alternatives, which would be to divide this task into several days, so that the effort is not so intense, even to ask for the help of another person, if possible, to distribute the workload equally among several.

      2. Either with me or against me

      Often, dichotomous thinking arises as a personal matter in which the subject considers that the other is one hundred percent in agreement with him, or on the contrary is radically against it. You will hardly realize that you can share parts of the reasoning, but not all.

      We can also pose as a reasoning close to coercion, or you are with me or you are against me, radicalizing positions and considering that the one who is not in the same order of idea is practically an enemy. As we can see, these are very rigid approaches, typical of authoritarian mentalities.

      3. Perfection or catastrophe

      Also, dichotomous thinking can plunge the person using it into a distortion that makes them perceive only two options: or absolute perfection, or disaster. Obviously, the decisions we make in life are not always perfect, but that does not in any way mean that they trigger a catastrophe.

      However, for someone who moves in dichotomous terms, not achieving total perfection cannot be achieved. consider a resounding failure. It’s a perfect way to live in a state of constant frustration and suffer the consequences on our mood.

      As we have seen, the best antidote to avoid falling into this problem is to work on flexible thinking and thus contemplate all the alternatives that life offers us.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Egan, SJ, Piek, JP, Dyck, MJ, Rees, CS (2007). The role of dichotomous thinking and rigidity in perfectionism. Research and behavioral therapy. Elsevier.
      • Oshio, A. (2009). Development and validation of the inventory of dichotomous thinking. Social behavior and personality: an international journal.
      • Oshio, A. (2012). An all-or-nothing thought becomes darkness: relations between dichotomous thought and personality disorders. Japanese psychological research. Wiley Online Library.

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