Dualistic thinking is a type of psychological reasoning according to which people perceive only two distinct and opposing options.
It involves the belief that two different and separate sets of forces govern the world, such as good versus evil or black versus white.
Dualistic thinking often causes people to become stuck in a state of “either-or” thinking, unable to see that there may be more than two alternatives. It can lead to group polarization, where one side is seen as wholly right and the other completely wrong.
For example, in the United States, political debates have fallen into polarized dualistic thinking in the past decade. The two political parties have encouraged a mentality where the other side is seen as evil, rather than good people with different ideas.
Definition of Dualistic Thinking
Dualistic thinking is a way of categorizing the world into two dichotomous realms, either/or, bad/good, and negative/positive. This mode of thought has the potential to shape human perceptions and actions in significant ways (Goodman, 2005).
Dualistic thinking is often perceived and defined as a general tendency to map different concepts onto “mutually opposed categories” (Hoffman, 2021, p. 9). It is the reliance on binary thinking, with the notion that there are only two distinct sides to any issue.
For instance, a person may think of themselves either as a success or failure, with no possibility in between. Another example would be the dualism between “natural” and “unnatural,” assuming that a single natural state is preferable.
In simple terms, dualistic thinking views the world as composed of two distinct, contending forces. People who employ this mode of reasoning may view their reality in terms of black-and-white, with no space for grey areas.
Dualistic Thinking Examples
1. Nature versus Nurture
This dichotomous argument supposes that genetics and environmental factors influence a person’s personality formation and behavior (Eagly & Wood, 2013).
Advocates of the “nature” point of view might argue that people’s conduct is largely predetermined by genes.
At the same time, those who support the “nurture” viewpoint may claim that experiences and surroundings play a more crucial role.
2. Atheism versus Theism
This debate is rooted in the centuries-old conflict between faith and logic.
On one side are atheists who state that a higher power does not exist; on the other, those who proclaim God or some form of divine intervention as responsible for creating and sustaining our universe, and divine command gives us our morality.
While atheists consider it to be an entirely natural occurrence, theists may look toward a supernatural force beyond our understanding.
3. Liberalism versus Conservatism
People have debated the merits of social change versus maintaining the status quo since time immemorial (Choma et al., 2012).
Generally speaking, those who support liberalism are eager to explore new possibilities and create a more progressive society.
On the other hand, conservatives take on a more traditional stance with staunch opposition towards any form of transformation concerning existing social norms.
4. Capitalism versus Communism
While capitalism is largely driven by individualistic ambition and rivalry, communism endorses the communal possession and regulation of production facilities.
Many onlookers might regard these two systems as extreme contrasts.
However, today’s world contains various economic systems that exist in varying shades between these two poles.
5. Male versus Female
This binary division of genders into male and female creates a false dichotomy in our society.
Men are often seen as analytical and logical, while women are thought to possess more emotional intelligence.
Unfortunately, this gender-based discrimination has serious implications for individual rights, perpetuating an oppressive power structure that limits the potential for all individuals regardless of gender identity or expression.
6. Good versus Bad
Moral dualism suggests that any and all actions can only be seen as either good or bad, leaving no room for a middle ground.
Killing another human being is the perfect exemplar to illustrate this point; one may consider it an utterly heinous and heinous act OR completely justifiable under certain circumstances.
7. Right versus Wrong
Dualistic thinking implies that any issue is black and white, with a definitive right and wrong.
This mentality type suggests that we should be able to identify what is correct or incorrect in each circumstance.
However, it is a dangerously narrow view, especially in our current climate of increasing complexity and moral ambiguity.
8. Individuality versus Collectivism
This dichotomy focuses on the relationship between the individual and society, and represents a divide between eastern and western cultures.
The crux of this argument is the question over whether it is more valuable to prioritize individual interests or the interests of society overall (Bhawuk, 2017).
Individualists often believe one person should be free to pursue their own objectives and their individual pursuit of happiness is a virtue.
However, collectivists argue that society is more important than the individual, meaning conformity, compromise, and social responsibility are more highly valued.
9. Rich versus Poor
This example demonstrates that the population is split into two distinct classes based on their wealth, with those of higher financial standing having greater power and privilege than those with fewer resources.
This rich versus poor dualism is challenged, however, by people like the postmodernists, who think that power doesn’t work in a dualistic way – rather, power is seen as a more nuanced and dispersed concept (for more, research Foucault’s concept of capillary power).
10. Healthy versus Unhealthy
Notably, some people see health as a binary concept: either perfect or flawed.
This oversimplified perspective overlooks the vast array of possible gradations between those two points when considering physical wellness.
A person’s overall health and well-being are far more complex than a dichotomy of “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
Causes of Dualistic Thinking
Dualistic thinking can be attributed to various sources, including cognitive dissonance, social norms, and even evolutionary forces.
Cognitive dissonance is the soul-crushing sensation that results when two conflicting beliefs are present in one’s mind.
It implies that humans have a natural inclination to form connections between situations and ideas, regardless of whether there is any concrete proof for it or not (Yahya & Sukmayadi, 2020).
This way of thinking can cause oversimplified black-and-white distinctions, as well as fixed perspectives about both sides of the distinction.
Cultural norms can contribute to dualistic thinking, especially when such beliefs lead to divisions between individuals and groups.
Take racism, for example; it often gives rise to a “us” versus “them” mentality, which creates binaries between those of different racial backgrounds.
Furthermore, evolutionary pressures can inspire the development of binary thoughts. Studies have indicated that humans become more vigilant and responsive when presented with two distinct options, like in a fight-or-flight scenario.
As binary thinking is so easily accepted, advertisers and marketers can take advantage of this tendency in the modern era.
It is far simpler to influence an audience by presenting two straightforward options rather than offering a more complex set of alternatives.
Problems of Dualistic Thinking
Dualistic thinking can be severely limiting, causing people to feel like they are trapped and that their choices are limited. Still, it’s only a misperception that hinders one’s ability to think freely and act independently.
Here are some of the major problems with dualistic thinking:
- Ignores complexity and nuances: Dualistic thinking forces individuals to make a false choice between two alternatives, overlooking the intricacies and subtleties that exist in every situation. Such thinking can be limiting since there may be more options available than just one of these two choices.
- Distorts reality: Binary thinking often prevents people from considering the full scope of potentialities in any given situation, as it reduces complicated situations to simplistic solutions. Additionally, presenting only two options disregards each person’s unique reality.
- Limits potential: By forcing individuals to fit into a set of predetermined criteria, dualistic thinking limits their potential to think and act outside the box. As a result, it can lead to a decreased ability to innovate and find solutions to real-world problems.
- Reinforces power structures: Dualistic thinking reinforces oppressive power structures because it discounts alternative perspectives and voices. It perpetuates a hierarchical system of domination and subjugation. For instance, binary thinking tends to favor the interests of one gender over another and ignores the potential of all individuals regardless of gender identity or expression.
- Promotes prejudice and discrimination: Dualistic thinking creates an unjustified “us versus them” mentality that promotes prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, racial minorities, and people with disabilities. This abhorrent mindset fosters further social injustice and inequality on a large scale.
Ultimately, dualistic thinking can make it difficult for individuals to understand the complexities of any given situation and come up with creative solutions. It can limit potential and cause people to feel trapped in a false binary.
Dualistic thinking is an approach that only allows two different, conflicting alternatives or realities. This form of thinking operates on a binary system to make distinctions between “good” and “bad,” “positive,” and “negative.”
Dualistic thinking can cultivate fear and uncertainty by incorrectly assuming that no other options are available. It can also limit potential, reinforce oppressive power structures, and promote prejudice and discrimination.
Therefore, it is important to recognize the pitfalls of binary thinking and instead strive for open-mindedness and inclusiveness.
By understanding the nuances of any situation, individuals can make more informed decisions and find creative solutions to real-world problems.
Bhawuk, D. P. S. (2017). Individualism and collectivism. The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118783665.ieicc0107
Choma, B. L., Hafer, C. L., Dywan, J., Segalowitz, S. J., & Busseri, M. A. (2012). Political liberalism and political conservatism: Functionally independent? Personality and Individual Differences, 53(4), 431–436. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.04.012
Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (2013). The nature–nurture debates. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(3), 340–357. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691613484767
Goodman, R. B. (2005). Pragmatism. Taylor & Francis.
Hoffman, E. (2021). An investigation of dualistic thinking in men’s mental health [Dissertation]. https://www.proquest.com/openview/dde132045078a7da73ad29b0d775d3cc/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y
Yahya, A. H., & Sukmayadi, V. (2020). A review of cognitive dissonance theory and its relevance to current social issues. MIMBAR : Jurnal Sosial Dan Pembangunan, 36(2), 480–488. https://doi.org/10.29313/mimbar.v36i2.6652