False Dichotomies

Edited and curated by @philhagspiel

What looks like an either-or scenario is frequently a lot more nuanced in reality.


Our brains are desperately trying to simplify the situations we are in since the world is becoming more complicated and difficult to understand. It is challenging to comprehend and account for nuance; blocks of black and white are simpler to deal with than constantly varying, overlapping shades of grey.

Reality is probabilistic, continuous and interconnected. But that’s hard to deal with, so we make it binary, discrete and isolated.

The outcome: False Dichotomies — illusory either-or scenarios that are ignorant of the in-between.

We use these deceptive and occasionally harmful simplifications in virtually every aspect of life, including politics, business, education, and personal decision-making.

  • An interconnected and multidimensional political landscape becomes left vs. right and blue vs. red.
  • Based on probability scenarios and different circumstances, a business strategy can be more or less effective over time — but is either considered right or wrong.
  • A job seeker's education and knowledge are a function of the university courses they have completed and the self-education they have done on the side, but are viewed through the prism of: Bachelor's or Master's?
  • Numerous approaches to bring about change could be used to solve an unsatisfactory job or relationship situation, but the question is reduced to: stay or quit?

Simplifications are often useful. Nuance matters even more often though. Knowing when to use dichotomies and when to put in extra effort to avoid them is a superpower.


A few further resources you might like if you find the above idea interesting:

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