Binary thinking refers to a simplified mindset where a person sees issues in one of two opposite and mutually separate ways. It may also be referred to as the ‘either-or fallacy’ or the false dichotomy.
A person who falls into a binary thinking mindset may fail to understand the nuances of a situation and lack the ability to view situations from other people’s perspectives (Barker & Iantaffi, 2019).
But the ability to engage in non-binary thinking is an increasingly valuable skill in today’s world. Employers seek people who can engage in divergent thinking, while students need this ability in order to explore and navigate complex concepts at school and university.
Binary Thinking Definition
Binary thinking is a cognitive framework that simplifies complex situations or concepts by reducing them to only two opposing categories or perspectives, often resulting in dualistic thinking or polarization.
To use a scholarly definition, I rely on Wood and Petriglieri (2005, p. 31):
“[Binary thinking is] a polarity encompassing a dimension of choice with two mutually exclusive alternatives.”
The effect of a binary mindset is that we often fall into the false dilemma fallacy, where a person believes that there are only two mutually exclusive paths to take, and no other options are considered (Barker & Iantaffi, 2019). This can lead to poor decision-making and refusal to entertain other people’s suggestions.
However, despite its downsides, humans have developed a tendency to engage in binary thinking because it was enormously beneficial to our ancestors. It’s a central decision-making process in the fight or flight mechanism. Our ancestors, living among predators in the wild, had to define something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ instantaneously in order to make rapid life-saving decisions.
As Wood and Petriglieri (2005, p. 36) argue:
“Evolution has selected and conserved the neural machinery that supports instinctive “good or bad” binary thinking, largely because of its survival value.”
Today, our task is to know both the benefits and flaws on this mindset in order to overcome its barriers, while embracing possible benefits, which we will explore after looking at some illustrative examples.
Binary Thinking Examples
1. Right vs. Wrong
An example of binary thinking is when someone views a situation or action as either completely right or completely wrong.
For example, a person might believe that stealing is always wrong, regardless of the circumstances. But stealing might be okay in some situations! For example, is it okay to steal some bread from someone who has plenty if it will save a starving baby’s life?
This type of black and white thinking ignores the possibility of moral complexities and shades of gray in a situation (Barker & Iantaffi, 2019).
2. Good vs. Bad
Another example of binary thinking is when someone categorizes people, ideas, or situations as either good or bad without room for anything in between.
For example, a person might see a political ideology as either completely good or completely bad, without considering the nuance and complexity of the ideology and its effects.
Similarly, you might think a consumer product is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but really, each product has its own pros and cons, and no one product is completely good or completely bad.
3. Smart vs. Dumb
Binary thinking can also occur when someone evaluates another person’s level of intelligence as either smart or dumb.
For example, a person might believe that a student who got a C on a test is dumb, without considering the possibility that the student might be absolutely fantastic at other types of thinking, just not the type required in that test.
For example, people with book smarts may consider people with street smarts as unintelligent … until that person with street smarts turns out being much better at practical tasks than the book nerd!
4. Success vs. Failure
Binary thinking can also be seen when success and failure are viewed as absolute, black and white categories.
For example, a person might believe that if they don’t get a promotion, they have failed, without considering that there may be many factors outside of their control that contributed to the decision.
5. Us vs. Them
Binary thinking can also manifest as a “Us vs. Them” mentality, where people categorize themselves and others into in-group and out-group categories.
For example, a person might see someone from a different cultural background as “other” and believe that their values and beliefs are fundamentally different and incompatible, without considering the possibility of common ground and shared experiences.
6. Normal vs. Abnormal
Binary thinking can be seen when people categorize behaviors or traits as either normal or abnormal, without considering the vast spectrum of human experiences.
For example, a person might think someone who is introverted is abnormal, without considering that being outgoing is not the only way to interact with others.
With an understanding that the concepts of normal and abnormal change across cultures, subcultures, social groups, and time periods, we can start to deconstruct our ideas of normal and abnormal and think in more nuanced terms about norms.
7. Perfect vs. Imperfect
Binary thinking can manifest itself when someone views perfection as the ultimate goal and anything less than perfect as unworthy or unacceptable.
For example, a person might obsess over having a completely flawless appearance, and feel ashamed of any perceived imperfections.
Similarly, their perfectionism might affect their ability to complete tasks such as a homework assignment or a task at work.
Nevertheless, social ideals of ‘perfect’ clearly differ from person to person, and obviously perfectionism must be weighed against time limits and other practical factors, making the perfect/imperfect binary somewhat difficult to maintain.
8. Nature vs. Nurture
Binary thinking can also occur when people view complex issues like personality development as either entirely nature or entirely nurture-related, ignoring the interaction between both factors in shaping individuals.
For example, it is believed that genetics may play a role in determining tendencies toward certain behaviors and personalities but how much you grow up in a nurturing environment will shape your growth in life as well!
It is difficult to know what is nature, what is nurture, and of course how each can interact to affect a situation. But simply by acknowledging that each plays a part, we can break down this binary concept.
9. Masculine vs. Feminine
Binary thinking continues to appear all around us when making distinctions between qualities that are viewed as masculine versus feminine.
This rigid gender binary defines traits by male- or female-associated norms and disregards people who lie outside of these distinct definitions, which is most of us. There are very few people who fit the perfect ideal of masculine or feminine.
Today’s world is increasingly recognizing that these two terms paint too broad a brush of people’s experiences in their own gender.
10. Big Picture vs Details
It is common for people to overlook nuanced details in favor of simplified big-picture narratives in all aspects of life from politics to art critiques.
If we’re too focused on the big picture, we miss the important details. If we focus too much on the details, we may get waylaid and miss the big picture. A person with a balanced perspective will be able to view a situation from both perspectives and multiple angles and avoid fitting completely into one of these perspectives or the other.
Dangers of Binary Thinking
Four dangers of binary thinking are:
1. Oversimplification: Binary thinking can lead to oversimplification and a lack of nuance in understanding complex issues. If our perspective of an issue is too simple, then our outputs (that is, our decisions) will similarly be simple and ineffective.
2. Polarization: When people categorize themselves and others into rigid categories, it can create a sense of division between groups, leading to conflict and misunderstanding (Shelton & Dodd, 2021). In fact, it is arguable that social media bubbles have led to increased binary thinking, i.e. with people choosing to see their opposite political numbers as evil rather than people with mostly overlapping values.
3. Stifling Creativity: Binary thinking can lead individuals to be trapped in ‘either/or’ choices and unable to explore creative, innovative solutions. Creatives, managers, and others with higher-level decision-making responsibilities need to have a degree of creativity to formulate functional and innovative solutions in their work (Shelton & Dodd, 2021).
Benefits of Binary Thinking
Four benefits of binary thinking are:
1. Clarity: Making quick decisions based on simplified options could help avoid confusion when dealing with some issues. For example, a person who focuses too much on the grey areas of an issue may often never reach a point of clarity in their thinking, causing them to freeze up and make no progress in their projects (Bourdillon, Meichsner & Twum-Danso Imoh, 2019).
2. Efficiency: If we get bogged down in making small judgments or thinking-through the multiple possible perspectives on an issue, we end up becoming very inefficient in our decision-making (Robbins, 2015). By contrast, computers, built on binary code, tend to make very quick decisions because they parse everything through a binary lens.
3. Categorization: In fields such as computer science or mathematics, binary categorization helps break down complex information into manageable parts allowing analysis through binary algorithms possible!
Binary thinking elicits a tendency towards oversimplification where groups and sides are pitted against each other with one overarching goal dictating actions rather than careful consideration for individual components that comprise an issue at hand. While it should be approached with caution, there are times when we do benefit from a binary or black-and-white view of situations, such as when needing to make a fight-or-flight decision.
Barker, M. J., & Iantaffi, A. (2019). Life isn’t binary. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bourdillon, M., Meichsner, S., & Twum-Danso Imoh, A. (2019). Reflections on binary thinking. Global Childhoods beyond the North-South Divide, 255-263.
Robbins, S. P. (2015). From the editor—The red pill or the blue pill? Transcending binary thinking. Journal of Social Work Education, 51(1), 1-4.
Shelton, J., & Dodd, S. J. (2021). Binary thinking and the limiting of human potential. Public Integrity, 23(6), 624-635.
Wood, J. D., & Petriglieri, G. (2005). Transcending polarization: Beyond binary thinking. Transactional Analysis Journal, 35(1), 31-39. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/036215370503500105
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]