Five cognitive distortions: dichotomous thinking

500px-Checkerboard_patternThis is the second in a series of blog posts looking at five cognitive distortions of high achievers. Today, we’re looking at dichotomous thinking—or, to put it more simply, black and white thinking. This distortion manifests in several different ways. Dichotomous thinkers are both judgemental and opinionated to a high degree. They see only black or white, not shades of grey. Adding dichotomous thinking with personal exceptionalism creates an explosive mix: leaders who believe themselves to be better than others, and who are more than willing to share their opinions. Which, of course, can easily lead to workplace conflict.

Steve Jobs was an exemplar par excellence of dichotomous thinking. An Apple staffer’s work was either brilliant, or absolute rubbish. (I’m being circumspect here; Jobs’s choice of words would have been far earthier.) And because we’re only as good as our last assignment, Jobs’ assessment could change from ‘genius’ to ‘merde’ in an instant. Which is crushing enough in itself, but dichotomous thinking creates another challenge within organizations.

Being told that our work is brilliant might boost our pride—but it offers no useful information. It won’t help us to a better job next time. Being told that our work is brilliant because of x, y and z actually contains some information that we can use. As does being told that our work is subpar because of factors a, b and c. But once a manger begins to explain why our work is either good or bad, an intriguing trend emerges.

It may be that our work is exceptional against factor x, but less so against factors y and z. This could stimulate a useful conversation with our manager, because we may see factor z as the most important of all. Things are no longer black and white. Shades of grey are beginning to emerge. We can now work with our manager to improve our processes and our outcomes.

The same can be said for negative feedback. While the project we worked on may have failed, perhaps we did some things well. Knowing this will help us next time. If our manager overlooks our positive contributions, it’s more likely that our next project will be a disaster, too. We need useful feedback if we’re going to excel.

This problem with feedback works both ways. Managers in the grip of personal exceptionalism and dichotomous thinking won’t be open to feedback from their people. We all know that everyone in the workplace has something to contribute, and that their ideas may prove invaluable. Black and white thinking blinds managers to this obvious truth. And in some cases, dichotomous thinking becomes a protective strategy. Deep down, we all know we’re not perfect—but with enough bluster, we can prevent anyone from pointing out our mistakes.

Finally, dichotomous thinking is by definition non-holistic. If we see everything in black and white, we’ll overlook good ideas, simply because we perceive them as negative—or because we disregard the person putting them forward. Many prominent people have allowed their opinions to blind them to future possibilities, as this list reveals:

  • ‘This “telephone” has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.’ Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • ‘Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.’ Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, 1895
  • ‘Who the hell wants to hear actors speak?’ H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers co-founder, 1927
  • ‘Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.’ Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946
  • ‘There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.’ Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, 2007

So sometimes it is wiser to hold our tongues, solicit a wider range of opinions, and allow the different shades of grey to emerge before making a decision (or perhaps even a comment). Next week, we’ll look at the third cognitive distortion on the list: correct overgeneralisation.


Leave a reply