Michael Abrahams | Trap of binary thinking
Now and then, I hear someone say, “I only see things in black and white,” usually with a smug expression on their face, indicating satisfaction with the declaration of their mindset. They wear that way of thinking like a badge of honour. However, it is not necessarily something to be proud of, and indicates a flawed way of processing information.
Binary thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, refers to the phenomenon described above, where only two sides to an issue are acknowledged. Perspectives are either right or wrong, good or bad, for or against. With this thinking, there are two options regarding a given matter, and you can only choose one. You pick a side, and the other is the bad or wrong one.
But here’s the thing. Life is not like that. Many issues are multifaceted and nuanced, containing grey areas of varying shades which can be rationally viewed from different perspectives.
Writing a column in this newspaper for the past nine years has exposed me to this faulty way of thinking and helped me to understand just how inaccurate it is. Politics is an excellent example of an issue that exposes this. Our country has two major political parties: the Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party. When I write articles critical of one party, many people assume I am a supporter of the other. So, I have been branded as a Labourite and as a Comrade. The truth is, I am neither. In fact, I have not only voted for both parties, but also for each of our last four prime ministers: P.J. Patterson, Portia Simpson Miller, Bruce Golding and Andrew Holness. It does not occur to some people that when someone harshly criticises a government, it may not be because they are a supporter of the opposing party, but rather because they believed in and trusted the present party in power and they let them down. For some people, if you are not for something, then you MUST be against it.
The binary approach to thinking is obviously unsound. So why is this type of mentation so prevalent? Why do we do it? We do it because binary thinking gives us a sense of certainty. Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. It can be anxiety-inducing and sometimes even downright scary. It is, therefore, not surprising that we see much binary thinking on display during the present pandemic. Uncertainty is one of the main hallmarks of this crisis. We do not know how long this pandemic will last, how it will end, or if it will ever end. And many aspects of it are scary. Not everyone experiences fear, but different people fear different things. Some fear COVID-19. Some fear the vaccines. And some fear both. The complexity of the pandemic makes some people feel tormented. So, it is easier for many to pick a side and stick with it. Therefore, some people who support COVID-19 vaccination see those who resist it as ‘anti-vaxxers’, and those who oppose it see those who support the jab as enforcers, supporters or victims of an ominous conspiracy.
But the situation is way more complex than that. In this pandemic, we see people exhibiting varying degrees of vaccine hesitancy and acceptance. At one extreme are genuine anti-vaxxers, people who reject all forms of vaccination. Then you have people who have no issue with vaccination, but are wary of COVID-19 vaccines for different reasons. Then, some people have no issue with COVID-19 vaccination, but are wary of mRNA vaccines. Some have no problem with being vaccinated and getting a booster, but have issues with multiple boosters. We have those who support vaccination for people with specific comorbidities and vulnerabilities, but not for everyone. We also see people who support widespread vaccination but believe people should be free to decide whether to be vaccinated. And at the other extreme, some people support mandatory vaccination for everyone and are strident and vociferous about it.
What you see above is a spectrum, and most of us will fall somewhere on that. But for some, it is easier to place people in pro- or anti-vaccination categories. This classification may help individuals to feel more confident, and that they are better than the guys on the ‘other side’. However, on a societal level, this approach is not only unhelpful, but also damaging. It sets up an ‘us versus them’ situation, which leads to acrimony, resentment, discrimination, and a host of other negative emotions and unfair scenarios.
What is more honest and beneficial is to accept the existence of grey areas and think spectrally. Acknowledging a spectrum of perspectives allows us to see things as they are, not confined to our own or societal boxes and boundaries that restrict and lead us to make simplistic binary choices and draw faulty conclusions. It is in the planet’s best interest that we humble ourselves and open our eyes to the shades of grey that exist.
Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human-rights advocate. Send feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @mikeyabrahams.