Thinking Toys #9 — Undichotomizing


Pick a choice you made this week where you felt tension or indecision over which option to take. Perhaps you saw two approaches and neither of them seemed more appealing than the other. They both had their drawbacks. Or maybe you were working with another person and disagreed on which action made the most sense. Now consider the possibility that you were facing a false dichotomy. You perceived two options and didn’t see any appealing alternatives, but perhaps with some effort, you could find more. Take 2 minutes and try to generate other options. Make a list of as many as you can. If you feel stuck, start by trying to generate bad ideas. Give yourself the freedom to be silly or wrong. This helps get you into a flow of generating ideas and out of that something useful can often come. By undichotomizing — pushing yourself to find other options beyond the default two — you often discover something better.


Minds cling to dichotomies. This is magnified when there is another person involved. We default to being protective of our own ideas rather than trying to generate and synthesize a third option that satisfies everyone. One way to help reframe the problem when butting heads is to go up in construal. Ask yourself why you care about your preferred option. What does it do for you? What do you get out of it? Then try to empathize with the other person and understand why they care about their choice. It pays to be curious here. You may not immediately understand the other person’s viewpoint and it is natural to project one’s own perception of the world. By exploring motivations, alternative options that satisfy both sides sometimes effortlessly appear.


I’m working on a project with a few friends and we recently ran into a disagreement about how we want to release it into the world. I have a desire for getting the result into the hands of as many people as possible. Their perspective is that most of the value will come from making it feel special by personally presenting it to friends. For a few moments, this felt like an either/or situation but other alternatives were available with some effort. The obvious one that is potentially appealing is to do both! We can start with the initial special, personal delivery approach. After some time, we can proceed to a wide release. It seems silly and obvious in hindsight but in the moment this wasn’t immediately clear.


The hardest part of undichotomizing is awareness. It’s very difficult to become aware of all false dichotomies we may be drawing in our day-to-day lives. Take a few minutes and see if you can list 3 dichotomies you ran into during the past week that now seem limiting. Often these situations leave us feeling stuck or frustrated with the tradeoffs we face. These are good triggers to keep an eye out for. More practice trying to spot these seems to make us better at it, as with any skill.


Why are we so drawn to dichotomies? What causes our minds to get stuck in them? It seems like minds thrive when carving up reality. Either into categories, like animals and places, or into mutually exclusive states. True/false. Here/there. Self/other. Now/later. Freedom/structure. Commitment/flexibility. Stay/go. These are extremely useful shortcuts for making sense of and surviving in the world. When we hear a loud noise, our mind jumps into Fight-or-Flight Mode. Precaution by jumping to conclusions served our ancestors well. This is less useful when we’re not in immediate danger, though. This automatic tendency to dichotomize can handicap us.


Do you have other ways of finding these scenarios and working around them? I’d love to hear, reply and let me know!


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Also published on Medium.

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