Why binary thinking is ruining the world

6 août 2021
I’m generally an optimistic person but obviously, there are still many things that are bothering me in this world. Among them, the way we will always reduce everything to a binary state, with two—and only two—sides (of which you absolutely have to choose one) is one of those things that bother me the most.

In technical terms, this phenomenon is called “false dilemma” or “bifurcation fallacy” and you can find examples of that everywhere. What’s best between capitalism or socialism? Do electric cars actually pollute more than gas cars? Is beef or cars to blame for climate change? Should we cut sugar or fat to lose weight? Should we all work at the office or at home? Is nuclear energy good or bad? Is Jeff Bezos the most amazing entrepreneur ever or a gigantic asshole for going to space? Should you rely on venture capitalists to grow your business or should you bootstrap it? Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe? And last but not least: who is the best between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?

Admit it, for each of the things I just listed, you have your own favorite side. The thing is, some debates have a clear correct answer if you make the effort to inform yourself (I’m looking at you, flat earthers), but the correct answer is usually somewhere in the middle (the infamous “it depends”).

There are actually three different types of binary thinking, which could be summarized this way:

  1. The Truth Binary is when we view a statement as true or false. Example: “I believe that the government is incompetent.”
  2. The Goodness Binary is when we view things as either good or bad, positive or negative, or moral or immoral when it’s in fact a mix of all these things. Example: “That book is good.”
  3. The Identification Binary is when we view things as either a member of a class or not a member of that class, when in fact, almost every categorization admits edge cases that lie between categories or fails to categorize some cases. Example: “He’s a criminal.”

Is it very sad to see that because we see everything as binary, with a black side and a white side, we actually disagree with people who hold the same opinions as we do, but with not the same level of engagement. In other words, in our binary ways of thinking, someone who thinks “black” will see someone who thinks “dark grey” as someone who thinks “white”, where both actually think (mostly) “black”, with one being more extreme and the other more measured. Every day, people are being called “communists” for criticizing capitalism, “Luddites” for criticizing technological progress, or “climate deniers” for criticizing the actions of a group like Extinction Rebellion. This is the sad state of things.

Think in shades of grey instead of black and white Think in shades of grey instead of black and white

The Internet was supposed to make things better because we now have access to all the information of the world. Being ignorant 30 years ago was understandable, but now, with all that knowledge available to all of us, it should be considered a crime, right? Well, the Internet actually made things worse, and it will be difficult (if not impossible) to counter that phenomenon. Why? Simply because the Internet makes it easy to find resources that go in the way of your initial beliefs, without having to look at what's going on elsewhere. If you think Earth is 6,000 years old or 4.5 billion years old, you’ll easily find articles or videos confirming your belief, making you think—with the greatest certainty—that you’re right. It’s called the confirmation bias, one of the worst things our brains are doing to us. But even if we would have the courage to look for different points of view, and that’s the most depressing thing there is, facts don’t change our minds. We’ll likely continue believing what we initially believed, even when presented with strong facts showing us that our belief is wrong, or at least not totally right.

My dream is a world where everyone would have a nuanced point of view on most issues. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen anytime soon because our world doesn’t reward nuanced points of view. What makes the most likes on social media and the newspapers headlines are strong—sometimes extreme—opinions. As Etienne Klein says, if you are interviewed by a journalist and answer “it depends” to all of their questions, you’re probably not gonna be interviewed ever again, even though all your answers are technically correct. I’ve seen someone being called “boring” for having a nuanced opinion about an issue, even though their “attacker” admitted that they were right. In 2021, being right is being boring. Yay!

But let’s not be too depressed about all this, because there are things we can do to make things better (remember I told you I was an optimistic person). So what can we do about it exactly?

Well, there are a few options (not exhaustive):

  • Probabilistic Thinking is thinking in percentages instead of in yes and no. It is mainly meant as a solution for the Truth Binary. Every time you think of yes or no, try to associate a confidence level to it. For example: “I’m 70% confident that the government is incompetent.” This is good because you keep the door open by admitting that you don't know everything, even if you have an opinion. This humility will be seen positively by those who argue with you, and there's a good chance you will all grow up from this discussion.
  • Grey Thinking is admitting that good things usually have some bad elements, that bad things usually have some good elements, and that many things lie somewhere in the middle. Nothing is totally black or totally white. For example: “That book is good, but it's true that some parts were unnecessarily complicated and difficult to understand.” Grey Thinking is mainly meant as a solution for the Goodness Binary.
  • Multi-factor Thinking is a solution to the Identification Binary. Whenever you feel that you're oversimplifying or misjudging, ask yourself what ways this thing is similar or different to a category, how it might blend multiple categories, and what traits it has irrespective of categories. For example: “Robin Hood is both a criminal and a hero.”
  • Directional Thinking is a concept proposed by Daniel Priestley in his book "Key Person of Influence" and described here. It is particularly relevant to people like me because it revolves around the notion of success for entrepreneurs, something that’s not always clear when you’re working on your own thing and can take a long time in the making; but that’s if you think in a binary way, around the concept of milestones. Instead of doing that, Daniel Priestley suggests we should think in terms of small grey steps in the right direction.
  • Spectrum thinking is a model proposed by Oz Chen that considers multiple options, alternatives, and possibilities that sit in the grey zone. In his opinion, spectrum thinking is a better representation of the human condition, which is inherently dynamic and evolving. Instead of having to choose between option A and option B, you have other options like both, between, other, and neither.
  • Strong Opinions, Weakly Held is a thinking framework developed by technology forecaster and Stanford University professor Paul Saffo. It’s about admitting the fact that you don’t know everything (yet) but not wait until having all the information to form an opinion (that’s the “Strong Opinion” part). On the other hand, it requires keeping an open mind and being OK to be proven wrong by yourself or someone else when presented with new information (that’s the “Weakly Held” part). Changing your mind is a strength, not a weakness.

Those are all different—but sometimes very similar—ways to counter the same problem. It’s like all these diets that are based on the same principles but vary in the details. You don’t have to choose one of them and stick to it religiously. You first need to understand what they are about, and what they’re trying to fix. Then, you can mix them together with your favorite pieces from each of them and come with a new one. You can even give it an original name. It’s up to you. In the end, the most important thing is that we all stop thinking in a binary way, for our own personal good, but also for the greater good of humanity in general.