A day ago, Pope Francis highlighted that ‘we’re at war‘. His sentiment is shared by many, who feel increasingly threatened by existing trends in society and perceive dichotomies. Different groups (old vs young, open vs closed, right wing vs left wing, well-educated vs poorly educated, open vs closed etc.) in our societies seem to be opposed to one another, an idea widely used by populist politicians to gain in popularity. The resulting policies tend to be dystopian ones: protectionism and isolationism (‘country first economics’, raising tariffs on imports etc.), walls between nations, and adisregard for old but valuable achievements like NATO. In this article I intend to highlight (part of) the nature of these ‘dichotomy’ problems as seen through the eyes of a social psychologist. I will also explain a way of dealing with such problems that we generally use in our work.

One of the first studies I read when I studied Social Psychology in Amsterdam was theRobbers Cave Experiment. In the study, researchers had divided a group of children in two groups (red and blue shirts and caps), and realised it was surprisingly easy to create hatred, competition and rivalry between the groups. In fact, it worked better than intended without much effort on the researcher’s side, the colour coding and competitions held between the groups did all the work for them. Getting the groups to work back together was a more difficult matter though, and succeeded only partly, and the study was later seen as unethical for that reason. The conclusion was a stark one: apparently it’s easy to build walls between people, and it helps if they can be distinguished based on something simple (colour of shirt, or colour of skin/age/educational attainment for that matter). People love the concept of dichotomies (this vs that); it’s an easy to grasp and easy to work with mental concept. A recent PwC study showed that company executives believe in them too, and see a world that is increasingly multipolar (first slide below). Although they may be right in ways, sociologists would probably consider them to be wrong if you change the time scale (second slide below); noting that we have generally become more peaceful and empathic to wider groups over time.

Dichotomy-based reasoning has three main flaws: i) most of them exist only as mental concepts and not in reality (explained well in this Zen koan, first story), ii) they tend to limit cognitive efforts to solve the problem (because it feels solved already) and iii) they tend to work as a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually create the division over time. Most importantly: they limit empathy for other groups, and with that limit cognitive efforts about the best solutions for all parties. The problems are well known, and described in Harvard as ‘grey area problems‘, where all parties are consciously taken into account – an important thing in the education of our future leaders. When approached the wrong way dichotomy-based reasoning can do tremendous harm. Take the history of the European peninsula, which morally downgraded itself through similar arguments between 1914 and 1945. ‘Country first’, populist and anti-intellectual dichotomous reasoning create forces that couldn’t be controlled, and led to tremendous horrors that still impact much of our politics (like the EU). In a continent that considered itself peaceful, and the ‘intellectual capital of the world’, we saw an estimated death toll of ~100mln people in just 31 years between 1914 and 1945,

So, how to deal more effectively with this mental bias that prompts us to see dichotomies? Given: making decisions that impact multiple parties (or countries) is increasingly difficult in an interconnected and increasingly complex world, so it’s not easy. Given: it requires additional mental effort. But, it’s by far the better approach. Here’s how it works (thanks in part to Tom Cummings!):

  1. Always force yourself to write down the dichotomies you see (in the underlying format, with an arrow between them). Make sure to be very explicit, vague dichotomies don’t work.
  2. Ask yourself whether your dichotomy is a real dichotomy or a ‘false dilemma’. Helpful questions: Can both parts of the arrow grow/flourish at the same time? Do I know people that would not consider this a dichotomy, and if so, why? If your dichotomy slowly falls apart (‘becomes grey’), you have found a false dilemma, which gives you more options to resolve the problems with the parties involved.
  3. If it turns out to be a real dichotomy; your job is to effectively balance the needs of different stakeholders. You can best do this by asking for a hierarchical list of all the stakeholders involved, so specifics elements can be ‘traded’. Always make the needs explicit in writing, and then co-design the best solution with the parties in the same room. Make sure to be open about the differences in needs/perspectives that may exist.

Let me summarise the article by saying that in a world that’s increasingly complex, we cannot succumb and give up our ‘enlightened’ mental powers that have served our societies so well. Although dichotomies are easy to spot and use, it’s crucial to realise that they are generally plain wrong, and create trouble in the long run. Plotting the perceived dichotomy over the relevant stakeholders involved, which forces you to make assumptions explicit, can therefore be powerful concept in today’s world.

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