Binary Thinking: Is it a Benefit or Bias?

Binary Thinking: Is it a Benefit or Bias?

Aug 12, 2021Fred Robinson

Binary Thinking: Benefit or Bias?

Key topics:



Zooming in

Cultivate Spectrum Thinking



Binary thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, happens when complex concepts, ideas, and problems are overly simplified into an either/or perspective. Binary thinking is black and white. Good or bad. Always or never. The gray area in the middle is ignored or goes unnoticed.

Binary thinking helps us feel a sense of certainty. Binary thinking can come in handy when faced with an immediate crisis like slamming on your brakes when driving to avoid an accident. We can thank binary thinking for this kind of definitive decision-making. However, in most human interactions binary thinking puts us at extremes.

Unlike a digital computer, the brain does not use binary logic or binary addressable memory. Information in the brain is represented in terms of statistical approximations and estimations rather than exact values. Our ancestors learned to categorize their world as either/or because it could save time and reserve mental resources for basic needs such as hunting and gathering food. They could use binary thinking to guide how they lived, and it would save them from danger in certain situations.


As we live in a world filled with a multitude of political, religious, and economic interests, binary thinking can and does create an incredible impasse. We feel the strain of binary thinking all around us every day. These lead to biases and prejudices. Preconceptions and misconceptions. This extreme thinking can cause serious overreactions or emotional responses and may result in significant consequences through impulsive behaviors. Binary thinking may allow us to see major advantages and disadvantages of a situation, but we miss the finer details to make an informed decision.

In my opinion, binary thinkers dwell in ‘unhealthy’ situations. Some binary-thinking disciples are listed below:

  1. Rabbit hole diver (one who is never satisfied; engaged in pursuits leading to more pursuits)
  2. Cliff jumper (one who controls or influences others in a clever or unscrupulous way)
  3. Paranoid victim (delusional, mistrustful)
  4. Dunning-Krueger effect (overconfident, overestimating ones’ abilities)
  5. Grumpy Dwarf (one who is ill-tempered, cantankerous)
  6. Trolls (social media predators)
  7. Control freak (“my way or the highway” / dictator)
  8. Terrorist (dangerous extremist)

Zooming in

How do binary tendencies tie into sports and athletes? I’m getting there. Stay with me. Let’s zoom from macro to micro as we analyze.

In a global view, factions, tribes and countries go to war because each side is unwilling or unable to communicate or negotiate toward a peaceful result. Unwillingness is a catalyst. Binary thinkers will not consider patterns and clarity outside, across, or beyond their own narrowed tunnel vision. Their perspective is driven by their needs only. Being unable to negotiate involves a lack of aptitude and self-awareness – both of which are hard to overcome.

Binary Thinking: US Congress<br><br><br>

Now zoom down from the global stage to a governmental or intergovernmental entity like the United States Congress or the United Nations. More and more we see the dysfunction among these enterprises due to – you guessed it – binary thinking. Despite the obvious effect of a strong joint effort benefiting Americans and people worldwide, the “right/wrong - left/right” mentality has risen to become an ‘accepted’ posture. Some humans thrive in this environment – abject binary thinkers.

Continuing our zoom from macro to micro, let’s look at the field of professional tennis.The current giants in the sport are Roger, Rafa and Novak. Among these, who has the best service motion? Who has the correct forehand technique? Who has the greatest backhand? I would venture that if you asked these questions among your social group, there would be a vehement debate. Your friends would defend their own opinions – maybe to the point of quarrel. They may refuse to give credit to players they simply don’t like, regardless. Seems rather silly. Unfortunately, when you zoom out to global issues, this binary thinking leads to destruction. 

Staying with our tennis environment, let’s zoom in on the local tennis club. Club teams are competitive and aspire to have a winning record. However, the other key objective for team tennis is to have fun and enjoy the social aspect of the sport. Interestingly, it’s usually the binary thinker whose opinions quickly upset the cordial atmosphere. Here are a couple of descriptions to illustrate my point:

Binary Thinking: Is it a benefit or bias?<br>

Example 1: A club member wants to be part of the tennis team. However, this person has some stipulations: (1) I will only play in the deuce court. (2) I will only play with a specific partner. (3) I will not play make-up matches. Etc., etc. This kind of language is constructed by a binary thinker. This person tunnels their wants and desires. Team player? Probably not. And this kind of person will likely ruin the cohesiveness of the team – whether competitive or social. 

Example 2: A club member wants to be part of the tennis team. (1) This person informs the captain about their strengths and weaknesses. (2) This person offers to play wherever the captain deems most helpful for the team. (3) This person participates in practices, is on time for matches and is a cheerleader for the other team members. (4) It’s likely this person keeps a notebook*, takes lessons and has the outlook that every match is a learning opportunity – but doesn’t take themselves or the game too seriously. These folks have growth mindsets and are learning evolving beings – not limited to binary thinking. 


Cultivate Spectrum Thinking

As explained, binary thinkers are those people who believe they are always right in the conversation. It is extremely difficult and probably impossible to change their minds. They resist change (growth). Binary thinkers are usually the “know-it-alls” in the group. My advice is adapted from Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata (1927) is: Avoid binary thinkers as they are usually loud and aggressive persons and are vexatious to the spirit.

The really good news here is that binary thinking can be exposed for what it truly is and most of us can spot it easily. If binary thinking is black and white, spectrum (or dialectical) thinking is life in technicolor. Spectrum thinkers use neural cultivating to tease binary questions apart and diffuse antagonism. These people look for the complexities and nuances that drive perspectives. They uncover and explore with compassion and empathy. Even though we have our preferences, a growth mindset allows us to suspend those preferences and consider new thoughts and ideas. Spectrum thinking demands more energy and cognitive load. Being able to ruminate and see something in a new light is called evolution.

As a coach, my favorite student players are spectrum thinkers for obvious reasons. Teachability, one characteristic of spectrum thinkers, allows a coach to move students along farther and faster. Curious students want to understand more about themselves and the world around them. These kinds of students are frequently upbeat and can laugh at themselves. In my experience, interactions with non-binary thinkers are enhancing and entertaining. 

If you are eager to learn more about this topic, I recommend Adam Grant's book, Think Again. Grant describes why clinging to our beliefs is ineffective. He brings to light some entertaining details about binary thinkers. Rethinking is the process of doubting what you know and being curious about what you don’t know. Questioning ourselves requires us to admit that the facts may have changed and that what was once right may now be wrong. Fascinating read.


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It is my greatest hope that you will implement some tips from our Bio-Cultivating and Neural-Cultivating blogs. Further, it is my hope you will be inspired to pass these learnings along to family and friends. We all have people in our lives who have the desire but lack the accurate information to improve their health. It is frustrating to sift through the bombardment of data and the misinformation in today’s world. It’s no wonder some give up in frustration. I believe that we deserve the healthiest choices that honest modern science can offer. It is my mission to help as many of us as possible get and stay healthy.

We deserve the healthiest choices<br>

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Be well and stay focused on cultivating your health, your mind, and personal solitude. If I can help you further never hesitate to reach out to me.

Move Through it.
Coach Fred.

World Class Tennis Champion<br>


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