“You’re either a nice guy or an asshole. And nice guys finish last.”
I listened with a frown on my face. This was circa 2014, and I was sitting in a free seminar run by pickup artists.
It didn’t make sense to me: I considered myself nice enough. But I’ve also been an asshole before.
In that moment I felt trapped by this illusory either/or option, and excused myself quickly from the seminar.
Fast forward to 2016 and the same binary options were at play with the Trump election.
Seemingly overnight, you were either an insufferable liberal or a racist conservative.
Binary thinking can be dangerous. It can divide people and cause extremism, and also reduce people down to a set of arbitrary variables:
If you do this, it means you are that.
The antithesis of binary thinking is spectrum thinking.
Spectrum thinking considers multiple options, alternatives, and possibilities that sit in the grey zone. IMHO, spectrum thinking is a better representation for the human condition, which is inherently dynamic and evolving.
I am multitudes. – Zan Perrion
Binary and spectrum thinking have their pros & cons, and as I’ll explore in this article, can even be paired together for optimal decision making.
Why Binary Thinking Proliferates
A binary set only includes 2 options:
- Yes or No
- 1s and 0s
- Male or Female
Binary thinking pits two theoretical possibilities against each other:
- You’re either a Republican or a Democrat
- Good versus evil
- If you don’t eat tacos, then you’re an idiot.
Why are we so prone to binary thinking? I have 3 guesses.
Hypothesis 1: Binary thinking requires less cognitive load
Brainpower consumes precious energy, and binary thinking helps us preserve energy compared to more complex types of thinking. It was well optimized for our ancestors’ fight-or-flight responses:
See lion, run.
Get food, eat.
Research shows that our decision making abilities suffer the more options is required. This is called the paradox of choice.
(For this reason, I learned to avoid grocery shopping when I’m hangry.)
Hypothesis 2: The Media Reinforces Binary Thinking
The way stories are shared in mass media encourages binary thinking. Imagine how many movies and books are based on the battle between good and evil.
Heroes and villains. Us versus them.
The news cycle also reflects this. It’s subtle, but the sensationalist nature of headlines (mine included) encourage binary thinking.
How many of us have formed an opinion based on headlines, without reading the entire article?
Me: ??♀️ guilty….
Hypothesis 3: Binary Thinking Makes Us Feel Better About Ourselves
My third and most reaching hypothesis for the proliferation of binary thinking is that it rewards the ego.
“iPhone users are so much less tech savvy than Android users.”
I am better because of my consumer decisions.
“Everyone should be a digital nomad.”
I am superior to my peers.
“Anyone who’s not invested in cryptocurrency is missing out.”
I am smarter than the average citizen.
In this now-viral debate, Cathy Newman (unsuccessfully) forces Jordan Peterson into binary options:
Binary options help us assert our identities over others, whether that’s labeling someone else as a “good” or “bad,” or simply making assumptions.
What’s truer to life is that we land somewhere in the middle.
If binary thinking is black & white, spectrum thinking is life in technicolor:
While binary thinking puts us at extremes, spectrum thinking considers alternatives and the middle.
We’re no longer operating in just a state of either/or, but in a space where both, between, other or neither exist. And I might be missing a couple more.
Some (imperfect) examples of spectrum thinking:
Binary: Tesla vs traditional automakers: who will win?
Spectrum (both): “Tesla will increase the demand and marketshare for all electric vehicles.”
Binary: Do you think guys should pay for the first date?
Spectrum (between): “I think whoever asks the other person out should offer to pay for the first date, though it really shouldn’t matter.”
Binary: To solve homelessness, should we increase housing or healthcare options?
Spectrum (other): Those are important, but we should also consider funding public education.
Binary: Which job offer should you take?
Spectrum (neither): “I realized I’m not that excited about either job. I’m going to keep looking.”
That last example is personally relevant. I once agonized whether to return to full time work or maintain the life of a digital nomad.
I created a binary situation for myself: keep working for yourself or go back to the corporate world…forever.
Then a friend pointed out that if I don’t like the job, I could always just quit. Simple.
The way out of a self-imposed ultimatum or arbitrary deadline is to consider the spectrum. Instead of the forever or never binary, why not try things out for a limited period of time, start out small, or go for an input-based approach?
As America becomes more divided over political ideologies, we need more spectrum thinking. It lends to more humility and better cooperation. It goes beyond right and wrong, in order to have civil discussions to explore issues with nuance.
Spectrum thinking demands that we think in layers, systems and dependencies, and less in absolutes.
There are tradeoffs, because spectrum thinking demands more energy and cognitive load.
It would be ironic if I wrote an article called Binary vs Spectrum Thinking and end up with a false dichotomy by making the reader choose one or another…
Leveraging both binary and spectrum thinking
I learned a trick early on when planning dinner parties: give people a few curated options.
Are you free Thursday or Friday night? gets better responses than the open-ended When are you free?
While binary thinking is optimized for speed of decision making, spectrum thinking is optimal for creating the set of options that binary thinking can execute upon.
Visually, I imagine this to be a funnel, with spectrum thinking at the top as a tool to explore options & alternatives:
The top of the funnel is for thinking through complex matters, forming opinions and making judgments.
Then, through experience and pattern-making, we may arrive at well-informed and well-tested binary options to choose from:
Perhaps this looks like evaluating a number of universities to finally apply to a select handful, or going on multiple dates to determine the right fit for a partner.
If I ever find myself alone in public past 10pm, I’m calling an Uber home.
When I get very distracted, step away from the computer and meditate.
This is not to say we shouldn’t revisit old habits, mental models, and automatic responses – even if they’ve served us well.
After all this posturing about binary vs spectrum thinking, it strikes me that this is just my way of understanding the scientific method or the simple idea of being considerate.
Thanks for joining me on this thought experiment. The best I can do now is leave you with questions that may help if you ever find yourself mentally stuck:
- Is my thinking on this topic binary or spectrum-like?
- Can another way of thinking help me right now?
- What alternatives have I not yet considered?
Those with the most clarity are the best at dealing with ambiguity.