All or nothing thinking is a kind of cognitive distortion which is forgetful that life often has subtlety, and that, between two positions, there may be middle ground which can and should be considered.
All or nothing thinking also has a strong influence the discussion of issues today. If the person articulates position, or point of view on some topic, they are often presumed by many to hold that position in an extreme sort of the way, without any distinction or qualifications.
I encounter a lot of this, writing on the blog, and in public speaking. If, for example, I say “A” is important, and we ought to consider “A” and give it some more attention, inevitably there will be some readers, and listeners who will say, “Oh yeah! Well what about B and C and D? Are you saying they’re not important at all?”
Of course I am saying no such thing. In the world of ideas, to hold “A” is not thereby to exclude other concepts that might actually balance and help distinguish. But those who engage in all or nothing thinking, and increasingly common problem today, interpret the upholding of “A” to be exclusive of other concepts. This makes them react either with extreme support (as in, “Tell it like it is!”), or extreme hostility.
To cite a recent example here on the blog, I recently wondered aloud if perhaps our life lacks some depth because, instead of living locally and more intensely in communities of more natural distance, we tend to live in more selective communities that are often far-flung, either by physical or virtual distance.
One instance of this tendency is the current practice by increasing numbers of Catholics to attend Mass, not in their neighborhood church, but in some distant community more to their liking, either liturgically or for some other reason.
While such a practice is certainly permitted, I simply proposed that those who engage in it, should consider that they are going to be less deeply involved in the parish that is 30 to 45 minutes away from where they live.
I was surprised at the strong reaction with this observation provoked. A lot of the reactions were rooted precisely in all or nothing thinking. Some of the reactions were strong enough that I did not post them, due to rather uncharitable descriptions of church life. But the general gist of them went something like this, “Oh! So you are saying I have to attend my local church with dancing girls, a crazy pastor, and all sorts of hideous practices, rather than go to a distant parish which is sound, with a good liturgy and teaching?!”
Of course I am not saying any such thing. For that would be all or nothing thinking. Rather what I am saying is that, among the things we should consider when we attend Mass, is physical distance. There my, in fact, be good reasons for us to attend not the neighboring church, but a more distant one. But other things being equal, physical proximity is a good thing, and should be part of our considerations.
While I would think that my proposition of proximity as one factor, among many, would be understood as such, I find increasingly, that many think that I am speaking absolutely. I am not, and find their presumption puzzling.
But I am finding that many today, more than in the past, do divert quickly to all or nothing thinking. This then often provokes strong negativity, even hostility.
I am not sure where this increase in all or nothing thinking comes from, but I suspect it has a lot to do with the increasingly polarized and polemical nature of our culture. This quality is in turn generated by the culture wars, and the “been in the storm too long syndrome.” The television new cycles, especially the 24 hour news channels, also tend to present life in a debate format. Indeed, presenting everything as a battle, and emphasizing hard edgy commentary sells. The quick shorthand of TV also simplifies things to soundbites and simple camp designations like “right wing” “Left wing” and extremist labels.
There is also simplification of people such that if the person opposes abortion, they must be Republican. If they oppose the death penalty they must be a Democrat.
Life, of course is not really quite so simply categorical, and people are little more complicated than that. Ideas are not always understood or advocated in undiluted ways either. But careful distinctions generally makes for “poor” TV. Categorical soundbites sell better. And the more usual and natural human experience of seeing a certain idea in a world of ideas, and balanced by a careful interaction of those ideas, is usually lost on TV debate formats and advocacy journalism.
Surely, as a man of faith, I will tell you but there are absolutes. But even absolute truths, often balance each other and require context to be properly understood. Jesus is fully divine. This is absolutely true. It is also absolutely true that Jesus is fully human.
All or nothing thinking has a hard time negotiating the delicacies and distinctions of balanced truth, or the the complex interactions of the world of ideas. And many things in our culture fuel this unhealthy cognitive distortion.
What then is the remedy for all or nothing thinking? In a word, I would propose the remedy to be “discernment.” The root meaning of the word discern, in its Latin roots, means to sift, to sort, or to distinguish. Thoughtful discernment is an important remedy for the polarized, polemical, all or nothing thinking of our current cultural setting.
Respecting the context of an argument, and the intentions of someone who proposes that idea, are also important and helpful. While it is true that some do present ideas in an all or nothing way, most people present ideas or points of view in a way that holds other things equal, in a way that is presumes and respects that other factors must often be considered. As a general rule seems reasonable to assume that if a person is presuming idea “A”, they did not thereby exclude principles B,C or D, but only that “A” should be given due consideration.
In effect, we presume good will on their part and intelligence as well. Such attitudes go along way to avoiding misunderstanding and hostility. If we wonder how idea “A” interrelates with B,C or D we can always ask. But we need not presume that our interlocutor means what he says in an absolute sense. We can also engage in our own discernment, as we sift, and sort and distinguish ideas. By discernment, we can retain what is good, distinguish were necessary, and balance ideas against one another.
For the reasons stated, reasonable discourse is becoming less common today. All or nothing thinking is one of the reasons for this we do well to identify this cognitive distortion, know it’s moves and properly rebuke it, where necessary.