Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer
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The Persistence of Binary Thinking

 

Bill Frayer 2010Computers work on a binary logic system. Their circuitry is essentially arranged as a series of switches. Each switch has only two options: on or off.  If the switch is not on, it is off.  If it’s not off, it’s on.  Simple. 

Unfortunately, I think, many people’s brains are operating on a similar logic. Not really, of course.  Our brains are considerably more complex, but for many, a binary logic system is comforting. 

The most obvious example might be political logic. Many people these days are able to avoid complex thinking by affiliating themselves with a political party or cable television network. Which team are you on?  If your team wins, the other team loses, and vice versa. Competition is good.  Builds character. We play to win. If we win, things are good. If the other team wins, things are going to be bad.  Simple.  Zero-sum game. 

Of course, thinking this way is easy and comforting. We know what side we’re on. We know who to root for, how to vote.  But, we see where this has gotten us: endless partisan fighting, gridlock, and uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners. 

The fact is, we tend to utilize this type of thinking in many contexts. 

If you go to college, don’t worry about school loans, you’ll always get a good job and be able to pay back your loans.  Not always true. It depends on what you study. It depends on the economy.  It may depend on your gender or ethnic group. It may even depend on luck. Not so simple.

Want to lose weight? Of course.  Looking for a simple system?  Yes.  There are many.  Try being  vegan. Follow the Paleo or Atkins diet. Just be low carb.  Or no, the problem is wheat or gluten.  It used to always be fat, so we all tried low fat diets.  Now fats are not so bad, sugar is the culprit. You might design your diet around your blood type.  That may be the answer. Not likely. Losing weight and keeping it off is a complex process. It doesn’t lend itself to binary, black and white thinking, as much as we would wish it so. Maybe this is why many people who successfully lose weight gain it back. 

I think it is in our very nature to look for clear, simple answers. This was a large part of Trump’s appeal. His deal-making, aggressive approach to politics appealed to people because it was binary thinking. If the US wins, China loses. If China gains, we lose, very bad. Free trade is bad because other countries gain jobs. We lose.  Very bad. Obliterate ISIS. Huge good. Build a wall.  Keep illegals out.  Problem solved.

People like this because, on the surface, it makes perfect sense. In reality, this type of oversimplification doesn’t pan out. Pulling out of trade agreements may save a few jobs, but many more are inevitably lost to automation.  Protectionism will also raise the cost of goods sold at Walmart. People won’t be happy about that. Eliminating ISIS would be wildly popular, but it might be more like whack-a-mole. Good luck with that. Building a long, high wall, well...you get the idea.

Maybe this has always been a problem; I suspect it has. We all like simple, elegant answers. We don’t like complexity because it makes us have to think about how things are more gray than black or white. We don’t really like gray. When politicians explain that things are complicated and gray, we think they’re equivocating and we vote them out of office. We tend to keep the ones which provide clear, clean, binary answers.

Now, here we are.

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