19+ Dichotomous Thinking Examples (Definition + Critiques)

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Today, we're diving into a topic that touches all of our lives in one way or another: dichotomous thinking. You might be wondering, "What is that long word, and why should I care?" Don't worry; we'll break it down for you.

Dichotomous thinking, also known as "black-and-white thinking," is a way our minds sometimes categorize the world into extremes. It's like seeing everything as either good or bad, right or wrong, a success or a failure.

Imagine labeling a movie as either the "best movie ever" or the "worst movie of all time," with no in-between. That's dichotomous thinking in action.

Why is this important? Well, while it might seem easier to slot things into neat little boxes, this way of thinking can limit us in many ways. It can affect our relationships, our careers, our mental health, and even how we understand complex issues like politics.

In this article, we're going to explore what dichotomous thinking is, where it comes from, and why it's considered a common hiccup in our thought patterns. And here's the best part: we'll share real-world examples that you can relate to! You'll see how it plays out in relationships, at work, in politics, in schools, and even in how we think about our health.

What is Dichotomous Thinking?

confused boy

Dichotomous thinking might sound like a mouthful, but it's really just a fancy term for a simple concept we all encounter. In everyday language, you might hear it called "black-and-white thinking" or "all-or-nothing thinking." These phrases all mean the same thing: seeing the world in extremes, like yes or no, good or bad, or win or lose.

Ever wonder where this term came from? Well, it's a subject often discussed in a field of study called cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists have been exploring the way we think for decades. One person you might want to know is Aaron T. Beck, a psychologist who talked a lot about dichotomous thinking back in the 1960s. He found that this way of thinking can often lead to problems like depression and anxiety. In other words, it's been on scientists' radars for a long time!

Here's something you might find interesting: dichotomous thinking is actually quite common. Our brains are hardwired to make quick judgments. Imagine our ancestors in the wild, having to decide quickly if a rustling bush is just the wind or a dangerous animal. There wasn't time to ponder all the shades of gray; it was either "run away!" or "stay put." That instinct still sticks with us today, making us prone to snap judgments.

The Theories Behind Dichotomous Thinking

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Its Perspective

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is like a toolbox for your mind. It helps you understand how your thoughts, feelings, and actions are all connected, and how you can tweak one to improve the others. It's like a three-legged stool: if one leg is wobbly, the whole stool might topple over!

So, how does CBT relate to dichotomous thinking? Well, CBT experts often meet people who think in extremes. For example, let's say a student gets a B on a math test and immediately thinks, "I'm terrible at math!" That's a classic example of dichotomous thinking.

According to CBT, this extreme thought ("I'm terrible at math") will likely make the student feel down, maybe even ashamed. And when we feel that way, do we want to study more or give up? Most likely, we'll want to throw in the towel. See how the thought influenced the feeling and then the action? It's a chain reaction!

Therapists who use CBT help people identify these kinds of extreme thoughts and replace them with more balanced ones. Instead of thinking, "I'm terrible at math," the student might learn to think, "I didn't do as well as I wanted to, but that doesn't mean I'm bad at math. I can improve." Changing the thought can change the feeling, and that can lead to more positive actions, like seeking help or studying harder next time.

Aaron T. Beck

If CBT is a toolbox, then Aaron T. Beck is like one of its master builders. Back in the 1960s, Beck was one of the first people to talk seriously about cognitive distortions, which are ways our minds trick us into believing things that aren't true or helpful. Dichotomous thinking is one of these tricks.

Beck's research helped us understand that when our minds jump to extremes, we're not seeing the world as it really is. It's like looking through a camera lens that distorts everything, making small things look huge and big things look tiny. And just like you wouldn't want to walk around wearing glasses that distort your vision, you don't want to go through life with distorted thinking.

He argued that the first step toward healthier thinking and a happier life is awareness. Once you know that your mind is playing tricks on you, you can start to question those extreme thoughts. You can ask yourself, "Is this really true? Is it always this way, or could there be some middle ground?" Beck's work has helped countless people break free from the trap of black-and-white thinking, opening up a whole spectrum of colors to explore.

The Two Systems: Fast and Slow Thinking

Now, let's talk about another way to understand why we think in extremes: the dual-process theory. This theory says we have two ways of thinking.

System 1 is like a sprinter—fast and based on gut feelings.

System 2 is more like a marathon runner—slower, more careful, and logical.

You might be asking, "What does running have to do with thinking?" Well, think about it. If you had to run away from a lion, you wouldn't want to stop and think about it—you'd want to sprint!

That's System 1 thinking. It's fast and sometimes saves us, but it's not always accurate. It's the part of our mind that jumps to conclusions, like thinking a rustling bush is a dangerous animal when it's just the wind.

System 2, on the other hand, takes its time. It weighs the pros and cons and considers different viewpoints. It's the part of you that stops to think, "Maybe that rustling is just a squirrel." Activating System 2 helps us avoid jumping to extremes. It allows us to pause and ponder, which is often what we need to break free from dichotomous thinking.

Examples of Dichotomous Thinking

man running

Relationships: The "Perfect" Partner

Ah, love! It's the stuff of poems, songs, and countless movies. But have you ever stopped to think about how dichotomous thinking can trip us up in relationships?

Many people have this idea of a "perfect" partner who will meet all their needs and never disappoint them. When reality doesn't match this ideal—because let's face it, nobody's perfect—dichotomous thinking can make us see our partner as a "complete failure."

For example, imagine that your partner forgets to do something important for you, like picking you up from the airport. It's easy to jump to extreme thoughts like, "They don't care about me at all!" But is that really fair? People make mistakes.

In reality, the same person who forgot to pick you up might also be the one who makes you laugh, supports you when you're down, and shares wonderful memories with you. By thinking in shades of gray, we can appreciate the full picture of who someone is, rather than putting them in a "good" or "bad" box.

At Work: The "Successful" Employee

The workplace is another area where dichotomous thinking often shows up. Imagine you're giving a presentation at work and you stumble over your words a bit. If you're prone to black-and-white thinking, you might walk away feeling like a "failure," even if the rest of the presentation went well.

This type of thinking can really hurt your self-esteem and might even make you avoid future opportunities because you're afraid of "failing" again.

However, anyone who's succeeded in the professional world will tell you that setbacks are a normal part of the journey. Most successful people have faced rejection, made mistakes, and even failed dramatically before finding their path. The key is to see each experience as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than as an "all-or-nothing" event that defines your worth.

In Politics: The "Good" or "Bad" Politician

Politics is often a hotbed of dichotomous thinking. How many times have you heard people say a politician is either "saving the country" or "ruining it," with no in-between? While it's natural to have strong opinions, this kind of extreme thinking can prevent us from seeing the full picture.

For instance, a politician might pass a policy you disagree with, leading you to label them as "bad." But what about their other actions? Maybe they've also passed laws that benefited your community or took a stand on issues you care about. Seeing politicians as entirely "good" or "bad" ignores the complexity of their role and the many factors that influence their decisions.

In Schools: The "Smart" or "Dumb" Student

Schools are places where young minds are shaped, but they're also places where dichotomous thinking can thrive. Many students think they're either "smart" or "dumb" based on a single test score or a comment from a teacher. This kind of thinking can have long-term effects on self-esteem and future opportunities.

For example, getting a low grade on a math test might make a student think they're "bad at math." But does one test truly capture a person's ability or potential? Of course not! Maybe the student didn't understand that particular topic but excels in other areas of math.

Or perhaps they're great at other subjects and have different strengths. By avoiding all-or-nothing labels, we can better appreciate and nurture the diverse talents in our schools.

Parenting: The "Good" or "Bad" Parent

When it comes to parenting, it often feels like society has a scoreboard, tallying each parent’s successes and failures. Say you forgot one PTA meeting, and suddenly, you’re a “bad parent,” never mind that you’ve been to all your child's recitals, helped with homework, and managed family meals.

This form of dichotomous thinking not only overlooks the multifaceted nature of parenting but also adds unnecessary stress. Raising children is a marathon, not a sprint. It involves a combination of nurturing, discipline, and making inevitable mistakes that provide opportunities for growth.

The notion that one is either a good or bad parent based on isolated events hampers one’s ability to adapt and learn in the demanding role of a caregiver.

Friendships: The "Loyal" or "Disloyal" Friend

Friendships are not static; they evolve over time. So, why do we use dichotomous thinking to evaluate loyalty? Imagine you've had a friend for years. You've celebrated birthdays together, lent each other shoulders to cry on, and have a vault full of secrets. One day, this friend forgets to invite you to a gathering. Suddenly, thoughts flood your mind: “Maybe they were never a good friend to begin with!”

This form of thinking not only discredits the years of companionship but also sets the friendship up for failure. It creates an unrealistic expectation that true friendship is a constant, unwavering loyalty, when in fact, friendships, like all human interactions, have their ups and downs.

Exercise and Health: "Fit" or "Unfit"

Fitness journeys are seldom a straight line of continuous progress. You'll have days when you feel like an athlete and days when you can barely finish a workout. This variability, however, often faces the harsh judgment of dichotomous thinking.

You might feel that because you didn't follow your exercise regimen for a week, you're suddenly "unfit" or "lazy." This thought pattern not only overlooks the efforts you've put in previously but also ignores how factors like mental well-being, diet, and sleep contribute to your overall fitness.

Moreover, it can kill your motivation. The truth is, being fit or unfit is not a binary state but a continuum that fluctuates based on various factors. There could even be external factors causing you to lose (or gain!) motivation.

Self-Image: "Attractive" or "Unattractive"

Imagine you’re getting ready for a date or a social event. You try on five different outfits, not satisfied with how you look in any of them. Eventually, you might look in the mirror and think, “I’m just unattractive.” This is a classic case of dichotomous thinking.

Attractiveness is not just skin-deep; it's a combination of physical features, personality, and even the confidence with which you carry yourself. Judging your worth or attractiveness based on a single aspect or momentary perception undermines your complexity as an individual. It ignores the idea that beauty can be subjective, and what matters most is how you feel about yourself, not how you fit into society’s narrow definitions.

Cooking: The "Masterchef" or "Disaster Chef"

couple cooking

We've all been there—you attempt a new recipe, only to end up with something barely edible. In that moment, it's easy to think, "I'm a terrible cook," or "I'll never get this right." This all-or-nothing mindset ignores the fact that cooking, like any other skill, takes time and practice.

No one becomes a Masterchef overnight. Additionally, one failed recipe doesn't invalidate your successes in the kitchen, whether that's making a simple but delicious pasta dish or perfectly roasting a chicken. It's important to appreciate the progress you've made and look forward to the delicious meals you'll cook in the future, rather than getting bogged down by one culinary mishap.

Learning a New Skill: "Talented" or "Untalented"

Suppose you decide to learn the guitar. The first week is exciting, but by the second week, you can barely strum a chord smoothly. It's at this point that many people quit, thinking, "I'm just not musically talented." This is a perfect example of dichotomous thinking.

Skills are almost always developed through effort and practice, rather than innate talent. Labeling yourself as untalented after only a few attempts discourages future practice and hampers growth. It also negates the journey of learning, which is often filled with challenges, but also with rewarding milestones.

Environmental Consciousness: "Eco-Friendly" or "Eco-Unfriendly"

The current state of our planet makes many of us want to be more environmentally conscious. However, the journey towards sustainability is not straightforward. Maybe you bring your own bags to the grocery store, recycle diligently, but occasionally find yourself buying single-use plastics. That doesn't make you "Eco-Unfriendly."

The truth is, every small action counts and collectively makes a big difference. You're not either eco-friendly or not; it's a spectrum, and you move along it as you learn and adapt.

Pet Ownership: The "Responsible" or "Irresponsible" Owner

Owning a pet is a joyous experience but also a demanding responsibility. However, it's easy to fall into the trap of dichotomous thinking when you forget a minor pet-care task, like missing a single feeding time or a grooming session.

You might immediately label yourself as an "irresponsible" owner. This type of thinking can induce unnecessary guilt and stress. What it overlooks is the daily love, care, and maintenance that you do provide for your pet, which is a more accurate measure of your responsibility and affection.

Social Media: "Popular" or "Unpopular"

In a world dominated by likes, followers, and retweets, it's easy to measure one's worth through the lens of social media metrics. Imagine posting a picture you're proud of, only to receive fewer likes than usual. The immediate thought might be, "I'm not popular," or "People don't like me."

This mindset overlooks the complexity of human relationships and self-worth, which can't be distilled into a number. Social media popularity is a fleeting and shallow measure of your value as a person. Real relationships are built through meaningful interactions, both online and offline, and can't be accurately gauged by how many thumbs-up icons you see on a screen.

Money Management: "Saver" or "Spender"

Financial responsibility is a journey that includes both highs and lows. However, dichotomous thinking can lead us to brand ourselves as "good" or "bad" money managers based on isolated incidents. Bought an expensive gadget or took a lavish vacation? Suddenly you're a "spender" who can't manage finances, even if you've been budgeting and saving effectively for months.

This mentality discounts the nuances involved in financial planning and overlooks the possibility that splurges can coexist with responsible money management.

Emotional Intelligence: "Sensitive" or "Insensitive"

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage one's own emotions, as well as those of others. However, it's not a constant trait and varies depending on the situation. For instance, if you mistakenly hurt someone's feelings, it might be tempting to label yourself as "insensitive."

But this black-and-white view ignores the times you've shown great empathy and understanding. One moment of insensitivity doesn't define your entire emotional capability; it's merely a point in a learning curve.

Creativity: "Creative" or "Uncreative"

Creativity is not an on-off switch; it's a fluid process. Some days ideas might flow effortlessly, while other times you may face a creative block. If you can't think of a brilliant idea for a project or an assignment, you may think, "I'm just not creative." Or maybe you can’t get into a ”flow” state, where everything comes easily.

This belief halts your creative process before it even has a chance to begin. Remember, even the most esteemed artists and thinkers had periods of struggle. Creativity flourishes when we accept that it's a journey with ups and downs.

Time Management: "Organized" or "Disorganized"

Being punctual and organized is an ideal many strive for but rarely maintain consistently. If you arrive late for a meeting or miss a deadline, dichotomous thinking may lead you to conclude that you're disorganized and irresponsible.

This mindset overlooks the many instances where you've managed your time well, met deadlines, and been punctual. It's essential to remember that everyone has off days or unexpected challenges that can disrupt even the best-laid plans.

Religion and Spirituality: "Devout" or "Non-Devout"

Spirituality and religious devotion are deeply personal and complex traits that can't be accurately measured by outward actions alone. For instance, if you miss a religious service or ritual, you might feel you're not a devout individual.

This form of thinking dismisses the internal aspects of spirituality, which include your beliefs, feelings, and individual practices. Remember, spirituality is a personal journey, not a checklist of tasks to complete.

Civic Engagement: "Active Citizen" or "Inactive Citizen"

Being an active member of your community isn't just about voting in every election or attending all local meetings. Maybe you engage through social work, activism, or simply by being a good neighbor.

If you miss a voting deadline or can't attend a community gathering, labeling yourself as an "Inactive Citizen" is unfair and counterproductive. Civic engagement has many forms and levels; what matters is consistent and meaningful participation over time.

Mental Health: "Stable" or "Unstable"

Mental health is a complex field with multiple variables, including emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Yet, during times of stress or emotional upheaval, it's easy to view oneself as mentally "unstable," dismissing periods of stability and well-being.

Mental health exists on a spectrum and can vary greatly from day to day. One difficult period does not define your overall mental state, nor does it eliminate the steps you've taken towards better mental health. And anyway, there are multiple factors that play into mental health, including external and internal situations.

The Dangers of Dichotomous Thinking

The way we think shapes our experiences, actions, and interactions with the world around us. Dichotomous thinking, though simple and instinctual, can have serious ramifications. Let's delve into why this black-and-white mindset can be so dangerous.

Creates Unnecessary Stress and Anxiety

When you view things as either good or bad, success or failure, you set yourself up for chronic stress and anxiety. For instance, if you're aiming for a promotion and you see the outcome as either "I get it, and I'm successful" or "I don't, and I'm a failure," you're placing immense pressure on yourself.

Stress and anxiety not only have negative effects on your mental health but can also manifest physically through symptoms like headaches, high blood pressure, and insomnia.

Hampers Personal Growth

In a dichotomous mindset, there's no room for the middle ground of learning, making mistakes, and growing. If you label yourself as "bad" at math, for example, you're unlikely to put in the effort to improve. This perspective stunts your growth by dismissing the gray area where learning happens—between success and failure, between good and bad.

Limits Complex Understanding

The world and its issues are complex, filled with nuances and subtleties that dichotomous thinking ignores. By categorizing things into neat little boxes of "right" and "wrong" or "good" and "bad," we hinder our ability to understand situations deeply. This limitation is particularly harmful in discussions around social, political, or ethical issues that require a multifaceted view.

Strains Relationships

In relationships, dichotomous thinking turns small disagreements or misunderstandings into major conflicts. If a friend forgets to call you on your birthday, thinking of them as a "bad friend" overlooks the full scope of your friendship. This can lead to unnecessary tension, misunderstandings, and even the end of valuable relationships. But don’t worry, if you’ve gotten caught in this kind of thinking, you can still work on saving your relationship. The first step is acknowledging it!

Reinforces Negative Self-Image

Your self-worth isn't determined by single moments or mistakes, yet dichotomous thinking can make you feel like it is. Failed an exam? You might think you're "stupid," even though you've succeeded in other subjects or aspects of life. This thinking pattern reinforces a negative self-image that can affect your confidence and potential for future success.

Feeds into Societal Stereotypes

Black-and-white thinking is often at the root of stereotyping and prejudice. Labeling an entire group based on the actions of one individual or seeing complex societal issues as a matter of "us vs. them" perpetuates division and bias. This creates a breeding ground for ignorance and hate, affecting communities and societies at large.

Can Lead to Mental Health Disorders

In extreme cases, persistent dichotomous thinking can contribute to the development of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety disorders, and borderline personality disorder. When every event is a catastrophe or a triumph, the emotional roller coaster can take a toll on mental stability.

Decreases Satisfaction and Happiness

Life's joys often lie in its complexities and nuances—the "in-between" that dichotomous thinking misses. By seeing the world in black and white, you may overlook opportunities for happiness and satisfaction that come from embracing ambiguity, complexity, and the rich tapestry of human experience.

Combating Dichotomous Thinking

balance scale

Understanding the perils of dichotomous thinking is the first step towards a healthier mindset. The next step? Taking concrete action to break free from this limiting way of viewing the world.

Here are some strategies to help you shift from black-and-white to more nuanced, balanced thinking.

Embrace the Gray Area

Life is rarely a matter of absolutes; it’s usually filled with many shades of gray. Practicing the art of seeing the nuances in situations can be incredibly freeing. Instead of categorizing a day as “good” or “bad,” try to see the mix of elements that made it unique. Perhaps work was stressful, but you had a good workout and enjoyed dinner with your family. That's not a "bad day," it's a complex one.

Question Your Thoughts

When you catch yourself falling into dichotomous thinking, ask probing questions. For instance, if you think, “I’m terrible at this,” ask yourself, “Am I always terrible at this, or did I just have an off moment?” Challenging your initial thought can often reveal its lack of accuracy and help you come to a more balanced viewpoint.

Use a Scale Method

Instead of thinking of qualities or situations as either/or, imagine them on a scale of 1-10. If you didn’t do as well on a project as you hoped, rather than labeling it a complete failure, rate it. Maybe it’s a 5: not ideal, but not a catastrophe. This helps your brain understand that life isn’t binary, but a range of experiences.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness techniques, like meditation and focused breathing, can help you become aware of your thoughts as they occur. This awareness makes it easier to catch dichotomous thinking in the act and challenge it before it shapes your perception of reality.

Seek Outside Perspectives

It’s easy to get trapped in your own patterns of thought. Talking to trusted friends, family members, or counselors can offer you a different perspective. They can help you see the nuances you might be overlooking and challenge your black-and-white viewpoints.

Foster Empathy

When we're willing to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, we often find that issues are more complex than they initially appear. Empathy helps us understand that people are not just “good” or “bad,” but a mix of qualities and experiences. This extends to how we view ourselves, helping us be more forgiving of our perceived shortcomings.

Look for the Learning Opportunity

Mistakes and setbacks are not failures; they are opportunities to learn and grow. By reframing challenges as chances for growth, you shift away from the dichotomy of “success or failure” to a more constructive mindset.

Professional Help

In some cases, dichotomous thinking can be deeply ingrained and challenging to overcome alone. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one approach that has been effective in helping people recognize and challenge their thought patterns, including dichotomous thinking. Don't hesitate to seek professional guidance if you find it difficult to make the shift on your own.

By consciously working to break the cycle of dichotomous thinking, you can open yourself up to a more balanced, fulfilling, and realistic way of living. Remember, the world is full of color; don’t limit yourself to seeing only black and white.


As we've seen throughout this article, dichotomous thinking—seeing things in strict categories of "good" or "bad," "success" or "failure"—is a widespread mental habit. It offers the illusion of simplicity in a complex world.

However, as comforting as it may be to put things in neat boxes, the reality is that this mindset can do more harm than good. It constrains our personal growth, strains our relationships, and blinds us to the beautiful complexities of life.

We've explored numerous examples that demonstrate how dichotomous thinking can manifest in various aspects of life—from education and career to social relationships and self-esteem. By understanding how this mindset operates, we can better identify when we're falling into its trap.

This awareness is crucial because the dangers of dichotomous thinking are far-reaching. It can impact our mental health, our happiness, and even our understanding of societal issues.

The good news? This way of thinking isn't set in stone. Our minds are adaptable, capable of change and growth. By employing strategies like embracing gray areas, questioning our thoughts, and seeking external perspectives, we can train ourselves to think in more nuanced and flexible ways. It might require consistent effort and even professional help, but the result is a richer, more nuanced perspective on life.

As you navigate the complexities of your world, remember that you're not confined to the limitations of black-and-white thinking. Life is a vibrant tapestry of experiences, filled with ups and downs, triumphs and challenges.

By learning to see the full spectrum of possibilities, you become better equipped to handle whatever comes your way, and perhaps most importantly, to find joy and meaning in the process.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). 19+ Dichotomous Thinking Examples (Definition + Critiques). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/dichotomous-thinking-examples/.

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