The Dangers of Binary Thinking


Nearly everyone is aware of the massive political polarization that exists in the world today. Many people lament over the lack of unity and cohesiveness among populations and the rise of extremist violence. People are even losing friends over opposing views. However, few are aware of the psychological phenomenon that is at the root of all this, and moreover, that a few widespread changes could stop this rapid descent into violence and chaos, possibly even help to repair the damage that has already been done. 

People naturally gravitate towards the oversimplification of complex issues. The human mind inherently struggles with uncertainty, and is always seeking a ‘black and white’ solution. Uncertainty, when taken in the wrong context, can lead to instability and fear. This act of dichotomy provides a sense of safety and reassurance for individuals, particularly when they can find groups of people who share the same viewpoints. Unfortunately, when large groups of people vehemently defend particular viewpoints simply to avoid uncertainty, they stop questioning and learning, which serves as a colossal detriment to society in the long run. 

Binary thinking also leads people to do irrational things, and ultimately creates a polarized society. Though there are plenty of information sources readily available to the general public, many individuals exclusively seek out information that coincides with their own beliefs and opinions. This act is called confirmation bias, and it impedes people from broadening their perspectives and learning new things. Additionally, in a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, people oversimplify a topic, or only become informed in one aspect of an issue, which creates a massive and unjustified overconfidence for the individual, because it allows them to believe that they know everything there is to know about the topic, and that any other viewpoint radical and invalid.

Though it’s easy to blame people for their confirmation bias, there are multiple forces at play. Firstly, the aforementioned human tendency to ignore opposing viewpoints in order to maintain certainty is not to be disregarded. But media companies shoulder much of the responsibility for this as well. The algorithms that run platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and even Google are specifically designed to personalize search results and feed content. As a result, people are exclusively surrounded by information that they support, and with like-minded communities. This creates a figurative echo chamber for each individual who uses these platforms, as it appears to them that every person’s viewpoint matches their own. While this is pleasing to the human mind, it poses a huge threat to society. People feel stronger in large, like-minded groups, and are more willing to do extreme things when they think they can hide in the crowd. 

So what happens when social media becomes a tool for extremist groups to find and connect with entire communities who think the same way? The rise of extremist violence has been shockingly high in the past few years, but when compared with the simultaneous rise of social media usage, it seems almost logical.

Politicians and political parties are also responsible for some of the polarization that is so prevalent today. Throughout history, many leaders have chosen to use discriminatory platforms and strategies in order to oversimplify national issues by blaming a minority. When Hitler was first rising to power, Germany was facing a crippling debt from the reparations payments of the First World War. Poverty and unemployment were through the roof, and there was a general feeling of hopelessness and desperation in the country. Hitler’s platform put all blame on the country’s Jewish minority, who were generally well-educated and successful, in contrast to the rest of the population. This classic example of politicians oversimplifying a complex issue shows how widespread binary thinking can be induced by people of power. Due to the natural human struggle with uncertainty, politicians are able to hack the human psyche in order to further their own agendas by using scapegoats to unify a population and to create a specific focus of hate. Unfortunately, Hitler was neither the first nor the last to employ this strategy. In Trump’s campaign, and throughout his presidency, he consistently blamed minorities for complex issues in the United States. Not only did this create a dangerous and hostile atmosphere for innocent individuals, but the culmination of his cult-like following ultimately resulted in a horrific and unprecedented event: the storming of Capitol Hill in January of 2021. The inauguration of President Biden has brought hope for many in regards to restoring unity and peace in the country, but it will take a concerted effort from all sides to repair the damage that has already been done.

We all want our world to be black and white. In a time when anxiety is already so prevalent, we’ll do everything in our power to try and keep things stable. But the truth is, very few things in life are really black and white: most of the world is just grey. And trying to change that will only lead to further violence and catastrophe. In order to avoid this, people will need to actively change their ways of thinking. Outside sources have exploited a natural human weakness for the sake of money and power. Undoing this psychology will be incredibly difficult, requiring people to intentionally challenge their own viewpoints by openly listening to new ideas and perspectives, and accepting the fallibility of their own notions. But humans also have a peculiar tendency to be stubborn and persistent, and if this quality can be applied to seeking change and reform in conventional thought, then there is still hope.