Binary Thinking

binary thinking image
Binary thinking leads to artificial dichotomies and lack of cooperation. vs148/Shutterstock

13 February 2019 – Most mentally adult human beings recognize that binary thinking seldom proves useful in real-world situations. Our institutions, however, seem to be set up to promote binary thinking. And, that accounts for most of today’s societal dysfunction.

Lets start with what binary thinking really is. We’ve all heard disparaging remarks about “seeing things in black and white.” Simplistic thinking tends to categorize things into two starkly divided categories: good vs. evil, left vs. right, and, of course, dark vs. light. That latter category gives rise to the “black and white” metaphor.

“Binary thinking” refers to this simplistic strategy of dividing whatever we’re thinking about into two (hence the word “binary”) categories.

In many situations, binary thinking makes sense. For example, in team sports it makes sense to divide outcomes of contests into Team 1 wins and Team 2 loses.

Ultimately, every decision process degenerates into a selection between two choices. We do one and not the other. Even with multiple choices, we make the ultimate decision to pick one of the options to win after relegating all the others into the “loser” category.

If you think about it, however, those are always (or almost always) artificial situations. Mommy Nature seldom presents us with clear options. You aren’t presented with a clear choice between painting your house red or blue. House paint comes in a wide variety of hues that are blends of five primary colors: red, blue, yellow, black and white.

Even people aren’t really strictly divided into men and women. It’s a multidimensional mix of male-associated and female-associated traits that each blend from one extreme to another. The strict division into male and female is a dichotomy that we, as a society, impose on the world. Even existence or absence of a penis is a situation where there are numerous examples of intermediate forms.

The fact that we see binary choices everywhere is a fiction we impose on the Universe for our own convenience. That is, it’s easier and often more satisfying to create artificial dichotomies just so we don’t have to think about the middle.

But, the middle is where most of what goes on happens.

More than once I’ve depicted the expected distribution of folks holding views along the conservative/liberal spectrum by an image like that below, with those holding conservative views in red on the right and those with liberal views in blue to the left. That’s what I mean by my oft-repeated metaphor of the Red Team and Blue Team. It’s an extreme example of what statisticians call a “bimodal distribution.” That is a graph of numbers of examples plotted along a vertical axis with some linearly varying characteristic on a one-dimensional horizontal axis, that has two peaks.

Gaussian and bimodal distributions
Expected continuous spectral distribution of folks holding conservative vs. liberal views contrasted with the bimodal distribution imagined according to how the two main political parties behave.

The actual distribution we should expect from basic statistics is a single-mode distribution with a broad peak in the middle.

The two main political parties, however, act as if they imagine the distribution of political views to be bimodal, with one narrow peak ‘way over on the (liberal) left, and another narrow peak ‘way over on the (conservative) right. That picture leads to a binary view where you (the voter) are expected to be either on the left or the right.

With that view, campaigning becomes a two-team contest where the Democratic Party (Blue Team) hopes to attract voters over to their liberal view, making the blue peak larger than the red peak. The Republican Party, in turn, hopes to attract voters to their conservative agenda, making the red peak larger than the blue one.

What voters want, of course, is for the politicians to reflect the preferences they actually have. Since voters’ views can be expected to have a standard distribution with one (admittedly quite broad) peak more or less centered in the middle, Congress should be made up of folks with views falling in a broad peak more-or-less centered in the middle, with the vast majority advocating a moderate agenda. That would work out well because with that kind of distribution, compromise would be relatively easy to come by and laws would be passed that most people could find palatable, things would get done, and so forth.

Why don’t we have a situation like that? Why do we have this epidemic of binary thinking?

I believe that the answer comes from the two major parties becoming mesmerized in the 1980s by the principles of Marketing 101. The first thing they teach you in Marketing 101 is how to segment your customers. Translated into the one-dimensional left/right view so common in political thinking, that leads to imagining the bimodal distribution I’ve presented.

The actual information space characterizing voter preferences, however, is multidimensional. It’s not one single characteristic that can be represented on a one-dimensional spectrum. Every issue that comes up in political discourse represents a separate dimension, and any voter’s views appear as a point floating somewhere in that multidimensional space.

Nobody talks about this multidimensional space because it’s too complicated a picture to present in the evening news. Most political reporters don’t have the mathematical background to imagine it, let alone explain it. They’re lucky to get the basic one-dimensional spectrum picture across.

The second thing they teach you in Marketing 101 is product differentiation. Once you’ve got your customer base segmented, you pick a segment with the biggest population group, and say things to convince individuals in that group that your product (in this case, your candidate) matches the characteristics desired by that group, while the competition’s characteristics don’t.

If you think your chosen segment likes candidates wearing red T-shirts, you dress your candidate in a red T-shirt and point out that the competitor wears blue. In fact, you say things aimed at convincing voters that candidates wearing red T-shirts are somehow better (more likeable) than those awful bums wearing those ugly, nasty blue T-shirts. That way you try to attract voters to the imaginary red peak from the imaginary blue peak. If you’re successful, you win the election.

Of course, since voters actually expect your candidate to run the government after the election, what color T-shirt he or she wears is then immaterial. Since they were elected based on the color of their T-shirt, however, you end up with a legislature sitting around cheering for “Red!” or “Blue!” when voters want them to pass purple legislation.

An example of rabid binary thinking is the recent Democratic Party decision to have “zero tolerance” on race and gender issues. That thinking assumes that the blue peak on the left is filled with saintly heaven-bound creatures devoted to women’s and minorities’ rights, while the red peak on the right is full of mysogynistic racist bullies, and that there’s nobody in the middle.

That’s what “zero tolerance” means.

Liberals tried a similar stunt in the 1980s with “Political Correctness.” That fiasco worked for approximately zero time. It worked only until people realized that hardly anyone agreed with everything the PC folks liked. Since it was a binary choice – you were either politically correct or not – most folks opted for “not.” Very soon the jokes started, then folks started voting anti-PC.

What started out as a ploy by the left to bully everyone into joining their political base had the opposite effect. Most Americans don’t react well to bullying. They tend to turn on the bullies.

Instead of a cadre of Americans cowed into spouting politically correct rhetoric, we got a generation proudly claiming politically incorrect views.

You don’t hear much about political correctness, any more.

It’s quickly becoming clear that the binary thinking of the “zero tolerance” agenda will, like the PC cultural revolution, quickly lead to a “zero support” result.

Perhaps the Democratic Party should go back to school and learn Marketing 102. The first thing they teach you in Marketing 102 is “the customer is always right.”

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