The curse of binary thinking

By Caitlin Kelly

When we started dating 14 years ago my now-husband drove me nuts with the phrase he still uses, (and which I now just laugh at):

“We could do one of two things”…

I’m sure — Broadside readers being a smart, educated bunch — some of you surely know, and can explain to me, the underpinnings of such a narrow worldview.


It feels these days as though everyone has joined one side of another. Our worldview is binary:

All or nothing.

Black or white.

Right or wrong.

Gay or straight.

Liberal or conservative.

Pro-choice or pro-life.

Gun control advocate or “gun nut” (not my phrase!)

It feels absurdly and, to me increasingly, stupidly, American.


When most of us know, or realize, that life is a hell of a lot more complicated than that. It is shaded and nuanced. And our most firmly and fixed beliefs can change over time.

I had two moments of this recently, both within an hour, one on-line arguing, (and quickly withdrawing from useless online arguments), with some woman I don’t know in a on-line forum, and the other at my local hardware store.

I was struck, hard, by the realization how easy it is to fall into a habit of thinking (why?) in terms of either/or, not both. Exclusion, not inclusion. Narrowing, not expanding, our notions of the possible.

People who speak several languages and/or have lived for long periods outside of their home culture and/or are married to or partnered with someone of a very different background often move beyond this limited thinking because it is challenged every day.

What we consider “normal” is simply normal for us.

The first argument was over work and its relative importance in our lives.

Americans — especially those who have never lived beyond their borders — often feel that working really hard all the time is the single most useful thing to do with one’s life. Being “successful” materially is the classic goal. And a very skimpy social safety net ensures that few can stray far from the grindstone because unless you’re debt-free, rich and/or have a shit-ton of savings, you will soon be broke and homeless and then, missy, you’ll be sorry!

The woman I was arguing with, a manager within my industry, kept positing two poles — marathoner/ambitious/admirable or useless/annoying/slacker. For fucks’ sake.

Very few people love their work every day until they die. If they do, awesome! But making anyone who doesn’t agree feel the same way somehow less than, or imputing slackerdom to their ambivalence, is bullshit.


Some people actually work for the money. Not passion.

For many people — and not simply “slackers” — their true passions and joys lie beyond the workplace: faith, family, travel, volunteer work, pets, and/or creative projects that simply make them, and others, happy.

My second “Duh!” moment happened while trying to buy gray matte-finish paint for our balcony railings. There was only white and black on offer. The sales clerk and I stood there staring at the cans, my frustration growing, his boredom blossoming.

I was pissed there wasn’t exactly what I wanted — when it was right there in front of me for the seeing of it, and making it myself.

Black plus white = gray.

How embarrassing that it took us so long to figure that out. I felt like an utter fool for not noticing that right away. It was a great wake-up call.

Do you find yourself trapped into this way of thinking?

What would it take for you to even consider the value of the other side of an argument?

36 thoughts on “The curse of binary thinking

  1. As a horror author, I often use the whole good vs. evil argument for my stories, though I am trying to write stories where no one is truly good or truly evil (check out my new book “Snake” for my first attempt at that). Yeah, I often find myself falling into these sort of thinking patterns, though I do occasionally think in other ways. And as for listening to another viewpoint…depends on the issue and the viewpoint, I guess.

    1. “And as for listening to another viewpoint…depends on the issue and the viewpoint, I guess.”

      Short of things illegal or utterly immoral, it’s good to even listen to the other side, even just for the practice of so doing.

  2. I have been so frustrated by this sort of thinking as well. I competed in debate for a long time and now have coached it for a number of decades. And although debate sets up argument in a very binary way, it also forces debaters to defend both sides of a resolution and I believe it has made me open minded in a way that would not have happened otherwise. There are no simple answers, arguments, or issues, but people don’t tend to deal with complexity well. It is unfortunate. I am making my students read The Certainty Epidemic this semester in hopes of increasing awareness of the reality of why we hold things with such certainty (and how it isn’t really based in reality at all):

    1. Thanks for such an interesting look at it!

      Debating is a great way into the very idea of examining our own habits of thinking…which I suspect some of us simply fail to do. One of the values of being an ex-pat (this is the 4th “foreign” country I’ve lived [Mexico, England, France]) and each one has taught me to think and behave differently, not merely in deference to cultural norms — but I also carry the residue of each. I know this has informed my journalism because (in that sad little phrase), I “think different” from my competitors as a result.

      To be able to seriously consider the “other side” is essential to useful policy making…but it does not win votes. Thanks for the link and the book recommendation! Very curious to read these.

  3. I stick my foot in it on a regular basis. Yesterday I did what I should never EVER do. I posted a response to one of my conservative Christian Facebook friends posts about the conflict in Israel. I wrote “What about all the Christian Palestinians?” Luckily no one responded and I walked away without any battle scars.

    You are right though. When you live outside your home country your world view is much more open. And because I teach to a multinational group of kids I have to be knowledgeable and open to a lot of view points.

    1. That’s so true…I bet your ideas have changed a lot since you came to Germany. I think global fluidity and being able to code-switch culturally is one of the best tools to have at any age.

  4. I think western society in its many flavours conditions us to polarise, often insidiously. A mind-set epitomised for me by the newspaper quiz, for which you either do or don’t know the answer. There is no middle ground. And that, to me, is the issue. In terms of the way we think and analyse, it’s got worse of late. I think part of this reflects the influence of the internet, which has always been reductionist. There isn’t room, inside our attenuated atttention spans, for shades of grey. And yet – as you point out – that’s where reality happens to be.

    1. What an interesting point…and so true! Then, look at the very real price of being “wrong” (or perceived to be)…shame, job loss or lack of advancement, social shunning, etc…Yet it’s the ability to take the other side seriously that is the underpinning of law and justice and public policy (at best!)

      Having said that (and feeling like a total hypocrite), the recent Supreme Court ruling recently here that anti-abortion protesters can stand as close as they wish and shout abuse at women going into a clinic makes me apoplectic with rage. I fully understand why they are there but I have no ability to tolerate how they express their beliefs.

  5. All the time. It comes with being trapped in one place and never taking leave of the little rut one tends to fall into with nose against grindstone. And I don’t think it’s an American thing. Some Australians wear it like a badge of honour. One of the most infuriating experiences I’ve had with this is the last 8 months I spent in the land of my birth, Singapore. As wealthy, cosmopolitan and diverse as it is, I found it insane how downright backcountry the thinking of a segment of the population is. I’m frightened by how large a percentage of the population gladly falls into prescribed paths of thinking, all the while complaining about how they have no choices. But I suppose it is hard to see when you are stuck in the middle of it, especially there.

    I’m glad I left, for however long I can sustain life on the road (hopefully, a long time!). Having been around a little bit, it is teaching me how to consider the other side of the argument, no matter how distasteful, without that defensive lock that stops the process. It’s a necessary skill to acquire to get something out of living on the road, but it’s very enriching to life in general.

    1. I thought this might resonate with you! 🙂

      Canadians can be appallingly and stupidly anti-American. It’s a popular default position (80% of what is on a Canadian news-stand is American, so I get it) but it’s also ignorant bullshit. If you have never taken the risk of re-inventing yourself (even in the neighboring area code!) you can assume “your way” is the best because you never have to adapt nor see the value in others’ choices.

      My first book, about American women and gun use, sold poorly — even while called “groundbreaking and invaluable” (I considered that as a tattoo)…because I gave equal time to women who love hunting and sport shooting and who own a gun, or several as to those traumatized by guns. That also gave me a position as an expert here; too damn ironic for a Canadian who does not own a firearm. Americans find it incomprehensible to see both sides of that issue clearly. It is a deeply complex one, especially for women, whose intimate partners kill three of us EVERY day.

      1. Yes, there seems to be a resounding call to arms when it comes to opinion. Having one means you have to pick a side, even though most big matters (e.g. gun control, race, class, gender etc) are too complex to chuck into right or wrong. The comment thread on your post about the duty of care to other people’s children was super interesting for this reason. So many things discussed from a bunch of different perspectives… plenty to think about without being able to label right or wrong to any of them.

      2. I think it’s dangerous — because then people end up scared to speak up/out in the face of the “popular” belief system. I agree…the major reason I enjoy this blog is the array of voices (at best) and convo’s…we are a very global bunch here.


  6. i think the key is to stay open, and to be aware that the world is bigger than ourselves. it is easy to fall into a pattern of thought and ideas, they never have to be reexamined and reflected upon, but we only truly grow and learn when we open ourselves up to the possibilities. your paint example is perfect and can apply to any situation. wonderful post, caitlin.

  7. tipseyteapot

    Great Post!
    As a history student I definitely find myself in ruts sometimes of things either being one way the other, but often times, we really have to break down the binary to find a more plausible answer, rather than a more popular answer.

    1. Thank you!

      Boy, history is a perfect example of this! When I wrote my first book (about American women and guns) I relished reading Western women’s history, by a terrific scholar named Glenda Riley (i.e. women of the Western U.S. when it was being settled). I learned a great deal that simply would never appear in any “official” history written and edited by men.

  8. Oh how true. I was fortunate that my parents raised me to question the world around me. If I don’t learn something new each day, it was a wasted day. This gives one the ability to play the devil’s advocate on most issues. it can be great fun to be arguing one direction, start to change someones mind and then argue the opposite with equal gusto. However, as you pointed out, this is not the norm and the binary thought process causes stagnation. Yes, Congress that means you. Anyway, Great post.

    1. Thanks, Dennis! Luck you to have had such wise parents. It really helps you in a wide range of situations.

      You can’t even empathize if you (literally) cannot imagine someone else’s reality.

      1. I somewhat blame the fast-paced society we live in. We are so worried and focused on the next fifteen minutes that we don’t want to or don’t know how to slow down and think through an argument before we jump into it. if we did that at least we would give ourselves a slim chance to understand where the other person is coming from.

      2. That’s a good point…I also worry about people “tuning in” only to the niche cable channels and blogs that echo their firm beliefs. You may live surrounded by people who think exactly as you do, work with them…how else to get a new POV?

      3. lexc13

        Great post. You are right about the narrow media messages that people consume. Even had a conversation close to thid subject just yesterday. Tried to convince somebody they were sharing some misinformation and they sauf it didn’t matter because they agreed with the sentiment. It’s a shame because yhey simplu thought the poont was they believed it and that was all that mattered.

      4. lexc13

        Yes it is frightening. Especially when it concerns politics or race relations as did the post we were discussing. Btw please excuse all the typos, was typing on phone while walking into work.

  9. Learned a lot from being married to my ex, who brought rich Latin culture into my life. And a lot about how black and white we think when I have to check either Hispanic or Caucasian for my sons on every form known to man. Can’t they be both? Not on these forms they can’t. I also learned my lesson B&W front when I mistakenly commented on an article marrying science and religion. A bunch of flaming atheists, who I have to assume were unemployed due to the frequency of their online posts, attacked. All. Day. Long. Oh my. And there was no intelligent dialogue, just vitriol. We have a long way to go but every time I interact with someone who gets the shades of gray, I am hopeful. We’re out there. We just have to find each other.

    1. That’s interesting….as you know (?) my husband is Hispanic, although very deracinated from his Mexican ancestry; I was the one who took us on a 3-week tour of Mexico in May 2005 to show him what an amazing heritage he has. Nor does he speak Spanish, which I do…So you might see a brown-skinned Lopez and a white-skinned Kelly and leap to all the wrong conclusions. 🙂

      I wonder why Americans (some) feel so utterly terrified by difference or inclusion. Is it the melting-pot ideal? The triumph of individualism? (which I discussed yesterday with a British-raised NPR journo now living here 18 yrs.)

  10. There are always two sides to the penny and then there is the abstract where it lands on the rim and can go either way. This is true of so many debated questions. Good article and I enjoyed it.

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