These memorable words, more or less, were spoken by President George Bush at a news conference in the context of the war on terror shortly after the attack on the Twin Towers. His actual words were "You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists." It’s an excellent example of what psychologists call dichotomous thinking, which is a world view characterized by viewing everything and everyone as either good or evil. Things are thought of in terms of black or white. There’s no in between. There’s no room for gray areas in dichotomous thinking.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding its complexities, life outside war strategy and politics does not present itself so simply and clearly. Should we be so lucky. As we all know, life is rife with a multitude of situations, people and events in which we are called upon to make some kind of accommodation or alter our approach. It’s called coping. The definition of coping is: 1. to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success (usually followed by with ) 2. to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner.
The attractive thing about this style of thinking is that the clear outcomes it seeks brings immediate closure to debates or problems and expedites arriving at conclusions. But this black-and-white thinking style can potentially lead to gross misunderstanding between people who have incompatible opinions. It can have negative psychological outcomes. There’s an intolerance of uncertainty, or ambiguity and persons who’ve adopted this style of thinking perceive or interpret uncertain and ambiguous events as threatening and for them is a source of discomfort, anxiety and disagreement.
Most people cope effectively. Growing up, we acquire along the way the coping tools and social skills necessary to accommodate various and unexpected things that come our way. But some have not, and as a result gravitate to this dichotomous way of thinking. In my opinion, I think when people are totally overwhelmed with a tidal wave of decision-making or forced to process a ton of information in a short time, I think many adopt this style of thinking as a way of trying to simplify life and to have it make sense. I think for many the temptation to distill complex issues into bumper sticker slogans is attractive, but can be misleading, and leave out truths. Talk radio (of all persuasions) and much of the media is an example of this.
When it comes to relationships it can create challenges. If one partner maintains this black-or-white style of thinking it’s not long before tensions begin to rise. Compromise becomes a chore. It’s usually the other partner who, in the interest of furthering harmony in the relationship, will agree or accept the stipulations of the other. If this happens, as time goes by, depending on what meaning the relationship has for the continually offended party, the relationship will most likely deteriorate.
This kind of thinking and worldview is also a central factor that maintains
perfectionism or perfectionist thinking. It has also been linked now as a predictor as to whether someone losing weight will regain it. It has also been linked to depression in some cases.
If this kind of thinking is in your relationship, know it for what it is and you’ll understand better why you or your partner is reacting or behaving in a certain way. How does one overcome dichotomous thinking if it becomes malignant? It’s not easy if at all possible and usually requires counseling. As long as those close to one who holds to this way of thinking isn’t bothered by it then it perhaps is harmless. But if give-and-take, or compromise is your mission, then this black-and-white style of thinking will get in the way.