Binary thinking & jumping to conclusions

Over the past months, while observing the debates surrounding the growing ideological and moral conflicts that currently shape global politics, a question kept bugging me: Why is there such a widespread unwillingness (or inability?) among most people to simultaneously handle multiple, competing thoughts? In other words: Why is almost everyone resorting to binary thinking, a type of thinking in which one out of two options of thought, considered mutually exclusive, has to be chosen?

I am afraid that binary thinking and the related pattern of rapidly jumping to conclusions are in part responsible for a toxic debate climate in which neutral, nonjudgmental facts routinely are being pushed aside in favor of emotions and weaponized empathy. Therefore I consider binary thinking to be a (possibly significant) contributing factor to the increasing polarization and division between groups, and in consequence an enabler for the rise of people such as Donald Trump.

In order to explain what I mean, here are two examples — and let’s stick with Trump and some recent events for that:

Imagine someone saying the following sentence: “Donald Trump is a horrible choice for the role of the U.S. President”.

Without any additional context, one would get a lot of agreeing nods from those opposing Trump, while being confronted with heavy opposition from those who voted for him. The latter group would automatically assume that they are dealing with yet another arrogant “leftie” city dweller filled with self-righteousness and ignorance about the problems average people outside of the cosmopolitan metropolises worry about; someone who does not understand that most Trump voters simply want to feel hope again for their and their peers’ future.

Here is the thing though: The statement above does not at all rule out that one has a full understanding for the reasons why average people voted for Trump. There is no conflict of mutually exclusive thoughts. One could passionately reject Trump and simultaneously acknowledge why people voted for him. But the ubiquity — or should I say the norm — of binary thinking and the habitual jumping to conclusions prevents people from even considering this as an option. Instead, based on this one sentence with no additional context, the person responsible for the statement is very likely to be immediately categorized as an “enemy” by people who voted for Trump.

Another example:

Now imagine someone stating that Trump’s immigration ban technically is not a Muslim ban, but a ban of citizens from 7 specific countries which already were particularly targeted by the Obama administration.

If no additional context is provided, this time conservatives (at least those who side with Trump and support his stance on immigration) would be agreeing or even cheering, supposing to have met an ally, while those who actively oppose Trump would likely instantly go into attack mode, concluding that they must be dealing with someone in favor of the ban; someone who probably sympathizes with Trump’s policies in general.

But again, this would be binary thinking and jumping to conclusions. To point out the technical peculiarities of the ban in a principle-driven attempt to stick to facts instead of emotionally charged labels, could be done by someone who at the same time wholeheartedly rejects the entry ban for all the reasons that are being brought forward by the critics and activists (and there are many reasons).

These two examples illustrate the damage that binary thinking does to public discourse: It almost desperately tries to push people into one out of two buckets, and it doesn’t accept the possibility for any other way of thinking. And since this pattern is happening all the time everywhere, those (seemingly few) people who actually practice the simultaneous processing and consideration of competing thoughts, are being conditioned not to make use of that. Because they learned that not clearly expressing the side that they are on in a straight-forward manner puts them at risk of ending up in in the “wrong” bucket.

For some people, the idea that one could consider and even express competing thoughts appears to be completely absurd. In a recent comment discussion, someone criticized me for “speaking out of both sides of my mouth” because I was trying to convey a balanced point of view. I answered “Yes, it is true. Why is this a bad thing?”.

So is binary thinking a learned practice, or is it a hardwired feature in our brain existing to help us to make sense of the world? Obviously I can only speculate. It seems that binary patterns are common in nature, language and culture (man or woman, good or bad, hot or cold, fast or slow, rich or poor, tall or short and so). And from an evolutionary perspective, making fast decisions and accepting false positives often has been more advantageous and possibly even life-saving than time-consuming, thoughtful investigation of a certain situation. This characteristic of the human brain is extensively being described by Daniel Kahneman in his widely praised book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

Nowadays, this behavioral pattern is counter-productive to meaningful, fact- and reason-based exchanges about issues of public importance. The good news is that one can block this habit from going into effect — in the same way as many cognitive biases can be mitigated: With self-awareness and deliberate, case-by-case mental counteraction. But that type of self-awareness needs to be learned. So it means effort. I am afraid that many don’t even see a benefit in trying: Because binary thinking promises instant belonging to a group. Balanced view points often are not rewarded at all. And who knows, maybe that’s the real reason why binary thinking is so widespread.