Binary Thinking


I recently heard of the term “binary thinking” and I would like some Catholic input. Binary thinking is basically “black & white” thinking, while ignoring any possible grey areas. Could this also be related to absolutism in morality? Example: I am a Catholic criminal psychologist and I believe torture and murder are always wrong. How could I critically evaluate a psychopath who takes pleasure in these acts? Does it make sense to evaluate a possible origin of this person’s behavior to better understand why they did what they did? Like to say “monsters are made, not born”?

Hopefully this makes sense, I’m not sure what to make of binary thinking and how it relates to Catholic thought. I believe we shouldn’t judge others, but we should hate their sin. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

God Bless


Cognitive distortions like “binary thinking” aren’t really meant for that sort of application. They’re not absolutes where, say, everything that exhibits a binary dichotomy is bad. Rather, they are markers of certain errors people tend toward. They’re best approached as indications that, if you find yourself thinking a certain way, it’s good to step back and take another look at how you’re thinking and make sure you really are being accurate.

They’re also more applicable to personal decisions than to general philosophical principles about the world. A better example of binary thinking is a guy thinking “I either have to marry this girl, or be alone all my life.” That’s not the case, and settling into that binary can make him very miserable. But, for example, someone in an abusive relationship might think “I need to get out of this relationship or I’m going to be miserable”, and they could be right.

So it’s not like 100% of cases involving binary thinking are bad. It’s just that people, especially people with depressive or anxious tendencies, tend to lock on to binaries that aren’t really there. Think of it as a warning flag, not a sure-fire sign that something’s wrong.


I think one can hear binary thinking in the words , never, always, when people are emotional we use those words allot. I duunno


Binary thinking rarely reflects the possible choices and outcomes in reality.


Great article here:


I have read that people along the Autism spectrum, particularly people with Aspergers, tend towards very black and white thinking. I’ve known a few in my time, and that does seem to be the case. They have a very hard time grasping the nuances of an argument, and tend to make very “legalistic” interpretations of situations. It’s very hard to convince them that some things really aren’t one way or the other, but sit in the fuzzy middle.


You know, it’s kind of funny. Not all that long ago, maybe 150 years, maybe less, most people thought in terms of absolutes and most things were looked upon as black or white. Where any areas of ‘gray’ were seen, such as, “Stealing is wrong, but a man stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family is not so wrong’, the idea wasn’t that 'stealing in need is LESS wrong” (i.e., a ‘gray area’ and an example of how some wrongs were really not so wrong or not wrong at all), but rather, “in an example of life where a person is in danger of starvation and we have not helped to provide him with food, our obligation to provide to others means that if there is food available but the person cannot pay, our humanity mandates that we allow him to take the food anyway”. IOW, instead of a ‘gray area’ we were making it clear that our primary ‘white areas’ might need more attention in certain situations. When Dickens wrote about the wrongs suffered by the poor, he wasn’t saying that Fagin, for example, should be viewed differently because even though he was teaching and encouraging stealing, he was also ‘keeping homeless children clothed and fed’ (i.e., a gray area). No, Dickens was saying that as long as society did not provide just wages and humane treatment, people were going to engage in things like stealing to provide food for themselves, or getting ‘gangs’ together, and it was society’s responsibility to start offering help and decent treatment and in that way the punitive measures such as transportation (to penal colonies) for stealing a few pennies would lessen.

But in more modern times the approach seems to be to make the gray areas proliferate. And now we have a society which pretty much takes everything on a case by case basis, and determines a continuum of whether person A doing Y is doing something wrong (usually of course they are judged NOT to be wrong because mortal sin is just so HARD to do), or whether it’s right for THEM, or in this particular instance, or for this particular group, etc. etc. In fact, one would be hard put to find anything which was judged to be completely black or completely white. Even Christianity is being infect… . I mean, Affected by this.


I weep for this man and those like him who prove the following maxim true:
"Lots of education does not equal intelligence or clarity of thought."
The whole of his article is a convoluted and tortured way saying “those who disagree with me are stupid. I don’t have to rebutt the arguments, they are just binary thinkers”. (as if binary propositions don’t exist and shouldn’t be considered…ummm, is it right to kill babies? Is it right to kill your mother for burning my toast…is it right to steal from my employer? Can two men create a child? )

We can’t tolerate people who are able to make simple judgments in life, can we. :roll_eyes:That’s the only intolerable thing for relativists: speaking the truth with conviction.
What the man is too arrogant to realize is, the examples he belittles have a clarity of thought that he is unwilling to listen to. After all, if the world didn’t revolve around his intellect, how useful could he be?


You just proved the authors premise, i.e. lack of empathy for those who do not share what you belief to be true.


No, I made an observation and discussed it.
Look at your reflexive one line reply and think about that for a second.


Unless the specific of a question are very specifically defined, then it might not be a binary proposition. For instance, if your employer is engaged in evil acts than stealing as a sabatoge might be good.

According to the UK’s desire to change “pregnant women” to “pregnant persons”, it would seem the answer is “some men”.


There is right and there is wrong. Gray areas are situations that require wisdom to determine the correct course of action. There may be rare situations that could confound a well formed moral person. However, most people who claim “gray areas” are either not looking hard enough or are rationalizing their choices by claiming ambiguity.


I said this upthread, but the fundamental problem is “black and white thinking” isn’t really meant to be applied to morality like that. It’s a way of critiquing your own personal thoughts about your options, because a lot of people with depressive or anxious tendencies tend to get locked into “either X happens or everything is awful” and that perpetuates the depression and anxiety.


Quoting this article, which poses a conversation between a questioner and someone who believes homosexuality is wrong:

“Homosexuality is wrong…. Anyhow, to address your questions.

What life experiences led you to feel the way you do?

I can’t point to any particular thing (life experience, if you like) that’s made me feel this way. Looking at it logically, we have noses to breathe through, though we can now make adjustments if we like. We have ears to hear through, though we can put all manner of things in them. We have sex organs, which we seem to do all kinds of things with, even outside our own species. Looking at these organs, to me at least, the logic of the universe indicates that, as sexual creatures, the male and female are meant to go together. In short, just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. We’re given these bodies and should behave responsibly with them.

What facts would you need to know to cause you to question your view on this issue?

The author is so confused. This is a sad, tragic, thing. He appears to be a well educated lawyer. His line of reasoning is akin to saying “what facts would change your mind that the sky is blue?”. He attempts to conflate coherence with complex thinking. Simple observation of human nature is not subject to “nuance”.
I won’t quote the rest of his imaginary conversation because it is an unfortunate straw man that invokes political hot buttons and stereotypes that have nothing to do with the simple observation of how we are made.


Empathy does not mean agreement only that you tolerate ambiguity so to have some understanding of what the other person thinks and feels. Certainly you have heard the term “know your enemy,” If ssm is an enemy you want to fight then you need to have some understanding of the opposite point of view. Binary thinking precludes understanding.


And so you make assumptions:

  1. That certain people don’t know what empathy is and don’t have it for a group of people. That’s a whole lot of soul whisperin you have going on.
  2. And you also assume those people can’t understand what someone else thinks, or feels, or is going through, simply because a a simple observation of reality is made that doesn’t really leave room for much naunce. This isn’t about a line of complex thinking, it’s about being sentient, and receptive to what is. If simple realities can’t be observed, what we have is either insanity or deception. Do you understand that? If you can’t agree that the sky is blue, you are either insane or ill-willed.

The tragic thing about this author is he takes a common sense observation: “human beings are made male and female, etc…” and disparages it as “binary thinking”. It’s an injustice to the very people he might profess to be concerned about.
So I ask you: Is this lawyer insane, or is he dishonest?


You keep providing excellent examples of binary thinking. Would a color blind person agree the sky is blue from his own experience of the sky?


Binary thinking is only bad when there are in fact more than two options. It is equally incorrect to say there are more than two options when only two actually exist. Unfortunately for us, we don’t automatically know how many options there are in most situations. I suspect that the culture bounces between both modes of thought somewhat rhythmically. As the flaws in one method become apparent, the other becomes more popular. Once that is taken to the extreme, its flaws become obvious and so the other method is selected. Cycle repeats.

Now, the flaw there is in fact in binary thinking - that one must see everything in black and white or that one must see everything with varying shades of gray. In fact, some situations will involve binary options and others will be more difficult to discern. For that reason, the moral choices may be simple in some cases and complex in others.


I think it depends on what we’re talking about. Some things are very clearly black and white - the light switch is on, or it’s off. Some things have some grey areas - like a dimmer switch. One can believe in an absolute morality and allow for ‘grey areas’. Circumstance and context are always important for… pretty much everything. It’s my understanding that grey areas arise when we aren’t in possession of all the facts for the case at hand. For instance…

  1. P is in an abusive relationship. P has not the means to get out of it, the ability to survive on their own, nor the emotional strength to enact a change due to the abuse. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, P blows the abuser away in broad daylight in front of multiple witnesses. P seems to have committed a murder - P wasn’t in any direct danger at the moment. And while P may be morally wrong to do such a thing (I don’t know if that’s right, but let’s grant it for the sake of argument) I seem inclined to believe there’s some grey area. And Ps motives, contexts - the etiology of Ps action - seems to be different from a random murder in a significant way.

In much the same way I think we all agree that theft is wrong. But if my little child was starving I wouldn’t feel so badly about stealing a loaf of bread to feed the child. I am in the wrong stealing. But this seems different than a punk pinching a video game from a WalMart shelf, right?

An absolutist in terms of morality would likely say there is an absolute objective morality. But to get at the answer of “is act X wrong?” requires a full understanding of all the contexts and backgrounds to the act itself. If we aren’t aware of the contexts, we might judge something as murder. But if we know the contexts, we might judge it as justifiable homicide. Likewise, if we aren’t aware of the contexts we might judge something as justifiable homicide when in fact it was indeed murder.


yes, I would hope so, because the fact of the matter is commonly sensible, and if he has any trust whatsoever in the world and people around him he can accept this. Only a fundamentalist (I can’t see it) or radical relativist (doesn’t matter what is seen, it’s what I make of it) will be confused here. Note that fundamentalism and relativism are flip sides of the same irrationality.
Of course, with the mish mash thinking being demonstrated here and in our culture at large, he might be correct to be distrustful.
In any case the accusation of binary thinking is a straw man in the article that was referenced. Interesting, the article is from psychology today from a well educated person. While our modern prophets go on outsmarting themselves, we endure record rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and addiction. Not to mention the genocide of the unborn.
Maybe you should think twice about who and what you defend. Maybe worry less about psychological buzzwords and stereotypes and more about what is real.

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