Dichotomous Thinking: How Black and White Thinking Can Affect Your Health

Dichotomous Thinking

Putting limits on choices can create a prison that leads to poor health.
We, humans, are a funny bunch. We celebrate creativity, genius, and success, but often don’t see what it is that gives rise to those traits.

We like to think we are fluid, flexible thinkers, but underneath we can have another tendency. That is, to separate action plans into black and white options. This is also known as dichotomous thinking.

Back in the day, and we are talking early humans, we had to make snap decisions. We had to be able to evaluate what was going on in a hurry and respond. Often, our lives depended on it. And, truly, sometimes these days our quick assessment of what needs to happen (say, when someone has run a stop sign and is heading for us) can be life-saving. Sometimes, however, we like to have simple solutions even when the task is complex.

But our lives are not always dependent on quick evaluations and easy answers (like “get out of here”). We can take the time to kick back and be introspective, evaluate different scenarios, and respond to a complex world. Did Albert Einstein come up with his theory of relativity by limiting his thinking to a few ideas? Actually, he weighed countless options and applied great effort to find a solution.

We clearly do not need to be coming up with the kind of solutions that Albert Einstein did, but we can contrast his methods to what is happening in dichotomous thinking.

Also, read 9 Toxic Thoughts In Loving Relationships

What Is Dichotomous Thinking?

Dichotomous thinking is seeing things, situations, relationships, and experiences, as either good or bad. Often this leads to people thinking either they have succeeded or failed. With this scenario, it is easy to end up frustrated because there doesn’t seem to be a readily available answer to the problem. Looking at it another way, accepting results without questioning can lead to low self-efficacy and feelings of no control over outcomes. Sometimes this is a subconscious, ingrained self-image that the person is not even aware of.

Unfortunately, there are subtle and not-so-subtle ways that this can be taught to us so that it becomes a default way of thinking.

How often have we taught our children to compare themselves to others by sharing scores on achievement tests, or making judgments based on grades? Students may come to think, “I’m not smart enough,” or “I’m just not good at math.”

Sometimes, students are praised for just trying, no matter the outcome. While this may seem like a good idea, being praised for just trying does not help the student learn from the experience or make a strategy for doing better. When an effort has been made that didn’t quite work, a useful follow-up would be, “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried and what you can try next.”

Right Thinking Can Change Your Life
Dichotomous Thinking: How Black and White Thinking Can Affect Your Health

What About Healthy Habits?

When it comes to healthy habits like diet and exercise, research shows that dichotomous thinking very often hinders an individuals’ efforts to reach their goals.

As an example, let’s take an in-depth look at what can happen when a person decides it is a good idea to exercise more. Perhaps their doctor has told them about the benefits, or perhaps they have had a health scare. Perhaps they just know they “should.”

Also, read What Is Cognitive Dissonance? Common Causes and How To Resolve It

A dichotomous view of the effort could look something like this:

“I’ll never look like those fitness models, so why even try?”

“It might hurt, and I have enough aches and pains already.”

“I’ve tried before, and it’s just not for me.”

“I don’t have time.”

“I dropped off the program last week, so I must not be motivated enough.”

“I can’t go to the gym. Those people look so much better than me.”

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Kristen Carter

Kristen Carter, M.S., is the author of Lose Weight? Exercise More? I Don’t Think So! What to Do When Your Doctor Tells You to Make Changes for Your Health. Carter uses her 30 years of education and experience to bring insight into how we can overcome the many challenges that surround us when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Carter’s professional experience includes community-based fitness and weight loss programs, workshop presentations, post-rehabilitation, programs for older adults through the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Departments of Aging, public speaking, writing, radio, and podcast interviews. She is the founder of the designforfitness.com website. Carter has a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology, an undergraduate degree in Biology, and Certifications in Nutrition Coaching, Health Coaching, Golf Fitness, Lifestyle Management, and Weight Control, Older Adult Fitness, and Personal Training.View Author posts