UNCOMMON COMMON SENSE
By Bill Frayer
Black or White...or Maybe Gray?
When our children were young, my wife taught me a technique for helping them to pick what to wear. I had been making the mistake of asking them, “Well, what do you want to wear today?” which precipitated an exhaustive review of everything they had in their dresser. My wife, far smarter than I, simply gave them two choices, “This shirt or that shirt?” They immediately picked one, under the illusion that they had selected their outfit for the day. In a way, she was using black and white thinking, or either/or thinking, giving the illusion that there were only two choices when, in fact, there were many.
Black and white thinking is a form of oversimplification. We like simple choices, because they are far easier to make. Our children were not yet sophisticated enough to pick up on the fact that their choices in clothing were being limited. Sometimes, as adults, we are given black and white choices, and we accept this false choice as legitimate.
Not to pick on George W. Bush again, but the example is irresistible. Shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, Bush announced to the world that other countries had to make a choice: either they were on our side in the “war on terror,” or they were on the side of the terrorists. Simple. Or not so simple. This false choice put many countries, like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other Muslim nations in a difficult situation. They may be with us on stopping terrorist acts, but they were in a precarious position as far as their own populations were concerned. They were truly, “in the middle,” despite Bush’s proclamation.
In our own lives, we encounter the temptation to use black and white thinking continually. Many people who live in Mexico enjoy the availability of alternative therapies available here. Herbal, homeopathic, and other folk remedies are easily accessed here. On the other hand, many prefer traditional western medicine. For many, this represents a black and white choice: either I use alternative medicine or I use western medicine. In fact, the most reasonable approach might be to use some of each. No need to pick just one. Where herbal remedies work, use them, but don’t blindly accept all herbal remedies as equally effective.
We typically see politicians using appeals to black and white thinking in their campaign appeals. The pitch might go something like this: “Are you satisfied with ‘politics as usual in Washington/Ottawa? If you are, vote for my opponent, because that’s what you’ll get. However, if you are sick and tired of this corrupt, ineffective approach to government, elect me, the candidate of change. Only I will bring the type of change you are looking for in politics. Vote for business as usual, or for me, for a real change!”
Now, of course, it’s possible to have something in between: a politician who eschews the corrupt politics as usual, but who wants to avoid branding all politicians as corrupt. In other words, it’s possible to not vote for this “candidate of change,” yet still get some change in the political environment.
Consider how often you look at a problem as having only two possible answers. There may, in fact be many answers, along a broad spectrum of ideologies. But there are rarely just two answers at opposite poles. Falling into this trap is to fall victim to black and white thinking.
Next month, I’ll discuss a very common form of oversimplification: the false cause error.