The Perils of Dichotomous Thinking

All or nothing, black or white, good or bad, work or play… we fall prey to dichotomous thinking more often than we think.

dichotomous thinking
(c) Can Stock Photo, Inc. / viperagp

This tendency isn’t surprising because limiting our choices to only two simplifies life and saves time. (As a researcher, I loved working with dichotomous variables—data from yes/no questions.)

But, the problem with one-or-the-other thinking is that it…

  • Blocks us from further understanding,
  • Confines our behavior, and
  • Curbs our potential.

To illustrate how different types of dichotomous thinking can limit us, I’ll describe how I often slip…

Good or bad

A while back, a reporter contacted me to find out what were some of the advantages of being fired. The question made me pause, stumble even. Getting fired is usually a bad thing. But, of course, nothing in this world is all good or all bad. Indeed, she managed to suss out “Four Reasons Why Getting Fired Rocks” from me and others.

When I look back at the really bad things that have happened to me, I can see now how much I have learned from them or how my life took a turn for the better.

You either got it or you don’t

I often catch myself assuming that talents are only begotten and character traits are set in stone. But, in reality, human beings have tremendous capacity to change and develop skills with effort. For example, so many of us believe that creativity is something you either have or you don’t. And, this belief prompts many of us to ignore our own creative capabilities despite the fact that experts argue that creativity can be nurtured. (For further reading on this topic, I have not one but two book notes you can check out! book note on this subject.)

Moreover, in her op-ed piece, Kay Redfield Jamison, renowned clinical psychologist and expert on mood disorders and suicide, reminded us that there are various forms of depression. It, too is not something you either have or you don’t and thus they way to treat it requires skill and competence. (She also wrote about her own bipolar depression in one of my all-time favorite books, An Unquiet Mind.)

Work vs. Play/Rest/Fun and School Year vs. Summer

Every August, I vacillate between wanting to send the kids back to school and dreading the end of summer. Part of me yearns for regular routines, while another part of me misses the lazy days of summer. But, I was equating summer with fun, relaxation, rest, and flexibility. Without thinking, I associated autumn with work, speed, and structure. And, even though I wrote about how work is not the absence of pleasure, I was again making this assumption! Yet, part of the reason why I want the children back in school is so that I can work with fewer interruptions…because I enjoy my work.

What to try instead

Why limit ourselves with rigid thinking and fixed behavior? Let’s mix it up!

Here are some things I might try:

  • Schedule some fun with my friends
  • Alternate demanding deep work with some easy mind-wandering activities. According to this research, mind-wandering helps with creative problem solving.

What dichotomous thinking has crept into your mind lately? How might you commingle rest/play with work?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. If you happen to notice grammatical or typographic errors in this particular article, please excuse me. My fabulous copy-editor is on a well-deserved vacation, so I am flying solo this month. If so moved, you can email me any errors and I will thankfully and promptly correct the online version. And, if you are ever in the need of an excellent editor, I am happy to forward you Phyliss’s contact info.

An older version of this article was first published in August 2014,