Unfortunately, there is very strong tendency for many people to think in black and white terms – a sort of ‘all or nothing’ approach. It is as if there is a strong urge to assign things to one category or another. This is what I call either/or thinking. Others have referred to it as ‘binary’ thought.
In reality, life is much more complex than that, and so either/or thinking prevents us from appreciating the subtleties of the situations we find ourselves in. It places a sort of straitjacket on our way of understanding whatever it is we are trying to make sense of.
Of course, an important thing to recognise is that thought is so often the basis of action. If we think in unhelpful, restrictive ways, there is a very real danger we will behave in unhelpful, restrictive ways too. Consider the following examples:
- Jean had always found Bill to be honest and reliable, so when it appeared that he had behaved dishonestly, she just would not accept it. As far as Jean was concerned, Bill was to be assigned to the category of ‘trustworthy’. The idea that he could be trustworthy for the most part, but capable of acting dishonestly in certain circumstances was a possibility she was not prepared to countenance. The consequence of this was that Bill was able to get away with some pretty unpalatable things because Jean had become blind to the possibility that he could behave in anything less than a totally honest and noble way.
- Rajeev was a very confident and competent person highly respected by his colleagues. He seemed to have an incredible capacity for getting through a heavy workload. His manager was therefore amazed when Rajeev’s wife rang in one morning to say that he was too stressed to come into work and was really struggling to cope. People had assigned Rajeev to a category of ‘highly competent’ and had not considered that even he might have a limit to how much work he could reasonably cope with. And, of course, the fact that people saw him as so competent meant that he found it really difficult to go against that perception and to ask for support or acknowledge that his workload had grown too big and was now unmanageable even for someone as competent as he was.
So, it is important to replace either/or thinking with both/and thinking – that is, to recognise that people can be honest and dishonest, depending on the circumstances, safe and dangerous, depending on the context, happy and sad according to the situation.
Is this a matter of intelligence, then? Is it the case that less intelligent people will rely on problematic either/or thinking, rather than the more productive both/and thinking? There may well be an element of this involved, but we need to be careful not to oversimplify here. There are two issues involved. First, it isn’t simply a matter of intelligence or thinking processes – there are also emotional issues involved. In the first example, above, for Jean to change her line of thinking would not simply be a rational matter, it would also involve a change in how she felt about Bill. Even very intelligent people can fall foul of either/or thinking, especially where emotions are to the fore. Second, there is the ironic danger of falling into either/or thinking in relation to either/or thinking itself: either you rely on either/or thinking and are therefore assigned to the category of ‘unintelligent’ or you do not rely on such thinking and are assigned to the category of ‘intelligent’. Of course, the very point I am making is that it is not that simple! We need to be aware that no one is immune, but, by being tuned in to the potential problems involved, we can avoid a number of significant difficulties.