Binary thinking is too restrictive and stifles our creativity, says Charles Handy
Another family meeting this morning. “Would we all like to go to the seaside? It’s time for a little walk on the beach.” To which I replied, “I can think of nothing worse than walking along a snowy beach on the North Sea in February. And,” I added, “worse still, you’ll be falling into the trap of a dichotomy.”
“What’s that?” they asked.
“It’s a logical error,” I said. “A dichotomy is when you’re faced with taking one of two alternatives – as in Brexit: in or out. Or as in most referenda: yes or no. And you’ve just given me one: North Sea or not – when in fact there are plenty of alternatives.”
Dichotomies are often thought to be helpful because they simplify life. They’re much loved by politicians because voters can very often be persuaded to select the choice those in power prefer. But in my view dichotomies dangerously over-simplify matters because they leave out other possibilities.
So you must always, when encountering dichotomies, add a few buts – such as: “No, I don’t want to go to the North Sea, but I can see it would be good for us to get out of this house so why don’t we go to my favourite restaurant, if it’s open?” Or, “Why not sit by the fire and watch rugby and see other people running around in the cold?” Or, “Yes, I’d love to walk along the beach, but shouldn’t we wait for a warmer day, when the sun is shining and the wind has dropped?”
Without such buts, there’s a danger that we reduce the world to a set of contradictory alternatives, and that stifles our imagination and leaves out all the other possibilities.
So what did the family do? We sat by the fire and watched the rugby.
Personally, I’d like to outlaw dichotomy as a device in political decision making, on the grounds that it over-simplifies and restricts our creativity.
I know parents sometimes use dichotomies when disciplining their children: “Either you eat this or you go to bed.” The possibility that they might eat a little and then watch the telly is not mentioned. I think it’s unfair to limit their choices in this way.
So to parents, politicians and everyone else – avoid dichotomies like poison. And if you must use one, allow some buts or amendments.
This is Charles Handy wishing you all well for the weekend, and hoping you don’t have to face any dreaded dichotomies.