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Binary Thinking

What triggers binary thinking and why it’s an issue

Have you ever noticed when you’re feeling uncomfortable about making a decision or you’re anxious about something, that you seem to only have two bad options?

It’s a sign you may be getting stuck in binary thinking – either it’s A or B.  Black or White.  Or an unattractive option against an equally unattractive option.

This is one of the limiting effects of our brain’s tendency to narrow our thinking when we’re under pressure.  It can be helpful to understand more about why this happens and what you can do about it when you find yourself stuck in binary thinking.

So why do our brains narrow in thinking when we’re under pressure?  It’s important to remember that our primary instinct is to survive and so when we face anything we perceive as pressure or a threat, then to some degree, our brain, muscles, hormones and chemicals are in survival mode.  You can dig into the neuroscience behind this here.

That might sound extreme for simply deciding how to address a difficult conversation with a  colleague, but the fact remains that since the days of escaping attacks by sabre-tooth tigers, we still have the same fight or flight mechanisms for any perceived threat.

The discomfort and anxiety caused by the idea of having an awkward conversation with a colleague registers in our brains in a similar way to a physical threat to our safety.  And so it makes some sense that during these times of pressure, our brain’s priority is not to be as creative and open as possible in thinking.

The brain’s priority is to get us out of the problem, so quick and minimal options that get us towards a decision and outcome is the focus: think fight or flight.  This might translate in your difficult conversation scenario to thinking your only options are to go in and shout at the person or say nothing.  Or you might decide that it’s fire them now or forever be stuck with their poor performance.

What we need is more options…

How can we break our brain’s natural reaction and find more options?  This is where mindfulness comes in.  We need to be consciously aware of what is happening in order to choose a different way of thinking.

So pay attention to those times when you find yourself thinking you only have two options.  Think of the thought “I can either do A or B” as an alarm bell – a warning that you are in narrow thinking and it could be beneficial for you to move into more open and creative thinking.

Once you have recognised that you’ve gone into that binary thinking, you can now choose to come out of it.  Here are some top tips for getting into a more creative space:

Tell yourself, or draw it out if you work well with visuals, that there are many options in between A and B.

Ask yourself, what if I could work out four other options between A and B?  How might that help me?  Posing this as a question rather than a factual statement engages the brain and challenges the brain to start thinking more creatively

This moves the brain to a future-focus

Focus on the outcomes – what do you want to achieve?  This moves the brain to a future-focus, imagining what we want to happen, which again breaks us out of the threat response.

In the difficult conversation example, you might say that you want the outcomes to be that the person changes their behaviour and that your working relationship is still intact.

In communicating bad news, like the need for redundancies, you might say you want the outcome to be that people know what is happening and why, and that people know you are keen to help them get through this.

It is helpful to think about your outcomes in terms of what you want other people to feel, say and do.  As this can be a clear starting point for you deciding what you need to feel, say and do.

Now plan out some other options.  Based on the outcomes you want, what are some different options?  What could you say and do?  Which options feel more appropriate?  Why?

Now you have moved from limited options to a clearer focus on the outcomes you desire.  So you can plan your next move.