Filosofy on Friday – Dichotomous thinking

Dichotomous Thinking:

I have been in two minds about writing this post. The idea came from news that Facebook are gong to introduce a “Dislike” button to help deal with the ambiguity that occurs when someone “likes” a post that has sad content, such as bereavement or losing a job.

I also have a professional interest in dichotomous thinking, as one of the main “thinking errors” identified in the cognitive-behavioural model of mental health problems. The model is based on two main tenets. Firstly, that our thoughts drive our emotional responses. Classically stated, it is not what happens to us or around us that is important, it is how we understand what happens. Secondly, emotional difficulties arise when there are unhelpful biases in our information processing. This is the model in its simplest form, and the two tenets are not necessarily 100% supported by the evidence.

Dichotomous thinking (or “black and white thinking”) is characterised by the tendency to see the world in terms of two extremes. As a person, I am either highly successful or a complete failure. I am the most stunningly beautiful man in Kettering or I look so hideous that I should only venture out when darkness falls.

Dichotomous thinking actually takes us back to the academic roots of CBT in the work of George Kelly in the area of Personal Construct Theory (which in turn led to Personal Construct Therapy). Kelly recognised that we are all scientists – we construct a view of the world based on our unique experiences, and these constructs help us to generate hypotheses and anticipations about how the world will be. Sometimes these constructs cause psychological difficulties, and Personal Construct Therapy (using a technique known as “Repertory Grid”) helps people develop more adaptive/helpful constructs that will improve their interpersonal relationships and general well-being.

The therapist’s task in CBT is to help people recognise their unhelpful information processing biases and to develop an ability to begin seeing shades of grey (I won’t suggest how many shades there might be – that’s for another post!).

Now, to some of the bits (!) I’m struggling with. To what extent do we live in an analogue world which is increasingly being understood digitally (i.e. in binary/dichotomous ways)? In some ways this links to my earlier post about the extent to which there are absolute rights and wrongs in morality.

There are clearly many things in the world that can only have two values – such as animate or inanimate (saying “dead” or “alive” is fraught with difficulties because advances in medical science have blurred the distinction). But we should not get into the habit of looking at the world in binary terms. It restricts our imagination, it detracts from the beauty and complexity of the human experience, and if we see our choices as being “either.. or..” we are not motivated to generate other solutions to our problems. This is particularly so for my distressed clients who believe their choice is between continued suffering or committing suicide.

My concern about reality being constructed by computer systems stems from my work in the NHS where we are constrained by the options offered in those lovely drop-down boxes. I do not want to live in a distilled and filtered world, defined by other people’s constructs.

I am a regular user of Facebook, but I am quite judicious in my use of the “Like” button. Soon I will have the option of “Disliking” posts, probably leading to being unfriended if I use it inappropriately! Can we only like or dislike? It is so limiting. And if I neither like nor dislike, does it mean I don’t care? Sometimes it does, most times I have probably missed the post amongst all the other gumph I get!

Dichotomous thinking is epitomised in Prince Hamlet’s soliloquy “To be or not to be..” Is that really the question? And to end, it is more prosaically captured by The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”. Ok, I’m going….but expect more on other types of thinking errors another time!



4 thoughts on “Filosofy on Friday – Dichotomous thinking

  1. Why is it that it never occurs to people to not click like at all and just leave a post saying what they feel. For example in the case of bereavement. All this button stuff just says to me that we’ve become lazy communicators who don’t have a clue how to empathize with people. Though I, myself, am certainly guilty of black and white thinking, it’s usually internal, not aimed at others.

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