Question
Asked 13th Apr, 2016

What are the reasons for humans' preference for binary thinking?

Is there evidence from e.g. neuroscience that could explain this preference on the basis of certain brain structures? Or evidence from psychology, anthropology, developmental psychology, ...? I am trying to understand why binary thinking is so persistent despite our understanding that the world is more complex than binary pairs - and how we could work to overcome binary thinking in higher education. Thanks in advance!

Most recent answer

12th Jul, 2019
Walid Saba
Northeastern University
But Graziella Masindrazana -- a decision, in the end, just another option. So let us say we are trying to chose between option A and option B. The binary decision making function would be:
decide( x ):
if x = A
return False
else:
return True
But that can be extended, to include options that a consensus between A and B, yet in the end, the decision is still binary! Here's the new (more flexible decision function):
decide( x ):
if x = A:
return False
else:
if x = B:
return False
else:
return True
This is related to the fact that any relation can be reduced to a binary relation.
In the end, to either we take option A (or ANY other), and that is a binary decision

Popular Answers (1)

Deleted profile
Binary thinking is, to a large extent, a requirement for decision making. At some point (in binary terms) we need to decide 1 or 0 in order to enable an action to take place.
Therefore, even though we have an implicit acceptance and understanding of the complexity of the world, there is a neurological need for a binary approach to decision making.
It would be fairly straight forward to test this. Comparable behaviour in a calm environment vs a stressed environment would certainly find an increase in binary decision making in a higher stress environment, because the survival need of a decision is greater. 
5 Recommendations

All Answers (28)

13th Apr, 2016
Teresa Bejarano Fernández
Universidad de Sevilla
Language could be an important reason. While perception offers a continuum infinitely graduated (for distance, height, etc.), language is almost reduced to two antonymes for each feature. When speakers want focus on degrees, the need to quantify is sketched out. 'Don´t tell me if he is tall or short; tell me what height he is'.
Curiously in our digital world, after Modern quantitative science, the 0 and the 1 have recovered the old, linguistic comfort of binary thinking
2 Recommendations
13th Apr, 2016
Johanna Lönngren
Umeå University
Thank you for your reflections! My follow-up question would be: Considering that language itself is a product of human interaction, why is it structured in a binary way? Could there be (or is there maybe even?) a language that is less binary?
1 Recommendation
13th Apr, 2016
Teresa Bejarano Fernández
Universidad de Sevilla
Emotional intonation (probably a phylogenetically old component of our language) is a continuum.
In addition, use of language in context (even a use lacking high creativity) is often able to overcome the binary thinking, mainly through dialogic turn-taking.
1 Recommendation
Deleted profile
Binary thinking is, to a large extent, a requirement for decision making. At some point (in binary terms) we need to decide 1 or 0 in order to enable an action to take place.
Therefore, even though we have an implicit acceptance and understanding of the complexity of the world, there is a neurological need for a binary approach to decision making.
It would be fairly straight forward to test this. Comparable behaviour in a calm environment vs a stressed environment would certainly find an increase in binary decision making in a higher stress environment, because the survival need of a decision is greater. 
5 Recommendations
14th Apr, 2016
Gloria Lee Mcmillan
The University of Arizona
Language, indeed, shapes thought.  Aristotle's rhetoric is all binary.
Modern rhetoric scholars like Victor Vitanza have answered the Aristolelian "yes-no"  binary mode with a Third Sophistic "yes, yes, and more" approach.
Note that Vitanza strategically uses puns and humor in his writing such as the 2009 Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric.  This style makes Vitanza challenging to read, but worth it.
His "third sophistic" approach is summarized in this essay:
2 Recommendations
15th Apr, 2016
Johanna Lönngren
Umeå University
Jonathan Belcher: I think your analysis has a point. Still, I'm wondering whether there could be more options than yes/no even in pressed decision making situations. Given the complexity of the human neurosystem - with overlaying signals that may strengthen/weaken each other or excite not only one neuron but several different ones that could lead to different kinds of decisions - could it not just be our way of describing neurobiological processes as binary that makes us conceive of them as binary? Could there be a kind of quantum-logic in neurobiology?
1 Recommendation
15th Apr, 2016
Johanna Lönngren
Umeå University
Jonathan Belcher: I think your analysis has a point. Still, I'm wondering whether there could be more options than yes/no even in pressed decision making situations. Given the complexity of the human neurosystem - with overlaying signals that may strengthen/weaken each other or excite not only one neuron but several different ones that could lead to different kinds of decisions - could it not just be our way of describing neurobiological processes as binary that makes us conceive of them as binary? Could there be a kind of quantum-logic in neurobiology?
15th Apr, 2016
Teotonio R. de Souza
Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias
If anyone is curious to find a masterpiece of binary thinking in historical writings, I suggest reading S. Subrahmanyam's "The Portuguese Empire in Asia 1500-1700", Longman 1993. I discussed it in a roundtable review in the International Journal of Maritime History Vol 5, n.2 (Dec 1993) pp. 233-37. I call my response "The binary logic of the Portuguese empire in Asia"
15th Apr, 2016
Steven Wallis
Foundation for the Advancement of Social Theory
If the world is a complex system of systems, then we understand that world better and we can make more effective decisions when our thinking is more systemic. The same applies to language as it does to business and physics, and math because all have a structure that is systemic. Per Johanna - yes understanding those systems gives a range of options. Yet, per .Jonathan, we still must come down to binary action. This is noted in economic theory of "opportunity cost": where each choice taken means that we lose the ability to take other potential paths.
Deleted profile
Dear Johanna,
My view is that, for lots of people, is rather difficult to work a problem by using a third way or a third party. Notions like mediator or moderator seem to be difficult to imagine, accept and use. I've been there myself, but I'm working on it.
Sincerely, George 
Deleted profile
 Hi Johanna
Sociologically or Philosophically speaking I believe you are correct, in that 'Relativism' is a quite common line of thought. In 'decision making' terms it is probably evident in various arbitrary decision making with regards to morality.
For example: 
Vegetarians vs Free Range Animals vs Eat Battery Farmed Meat
In each case a binary decision has been made (what is morally correct to eat) however the relative morality of each decision is different.
However, there still requires an output which is 'action', and whatever the complexity of neurological process which underpins the decision making process involves, the end result is 'eat' with a decision on 'what' to eat.
My opinion is that even a 'nuanced yes', is still a yes, and a nuanced no is still a no. We exhibit these behaviours regularly, but the requirement for an output of some kind remains. We can construct levels of answers which allow for different variations in circumstance, so If X, then Y, but if A then B which demonstrates an understanding of multiple circumstances, but the requirement of an action remains.
1 Recommendation
15th Apr, 2016
Franz Rolando Flórez Fuya
University of Antioquia
May be "brain structure" has a different nature than the "decision structure". Because choice is a personal and social construction simultaneously. That's why game theory has limits to ethics dilemas issues. Who's benefit my choice is part of the "dilema". Intersubjective issues has a nature beyond the brain and corporal structures, according Husserl's unpublished manuscripts.  
1 Recommendation
15th Apr, 2016
Andrea Schuman
Center for Scientific and Social Studies
Hello- well I see you are at a technological university, and maybe that is why you have received mainly technical approaches to the issue. But you also mention anthropology and psychology, so here are some thoughts more from those realms.
First, I think there is a distinction between binary thinking and binary decisionmaking. The Western tradition, rooted in judeochristian thought and Cartesian logic, almost does not allow for patterns of thought other than binary ones. Actually, we can go back to Aristotle and the law of the excluded middle (either a proposition is true or it is not true- it cannot be both at once).
Those of us who work with intercultural communication and the development of intercultural understanding are very aware of other ways of "thinking the world." In the recent constitutional processes of Ecuador and Bolivia (2008 and 2009, respectively), the issue of "rights" was a central area of contention. The western tradition holds that rights belong to individuals, where the indigenous view is that rights are collective, and extend beyond the purely human entities that are present on this planet. In the end, the Ecuadorean Constitution granted rights to the environment ("rocks got rights¨). This position can be seen as a melding of the two views, as the indigenous position views the separation of "man" and "nature" as incomprehensible, while the eurocentric view goes with the idea that "man" is superior to and has dominion over all else on the earth. This is just one example of the encounter of binary thinking with more fluid, less categorical thought. Concepts of time are another interesting area in this regard....
I hope that´s helpful.
3 Recommendations
15th Apr, 2016
Guillermo Ivan Lastra
Metropolitan Autonomous University
Since the time when, as humans, we became aware of our own existence, we've tended to reflect ourselves on the world around us. That is why the phylogenetic birth of human consciousness can only be inferred from the manufacture of symmetrical tools.
Having a binary body structure (two arms, two legs, two eyes...) allows us accessing to a binary reading of reality under of our own physiological reality.
Even the complexity possibilities (as space-time abstractions) tend to be reduced to accessible criteria for our psychological patterns, that have been developed over thousands of years and depend entirely on the use of our own binary structure.
0 and 1; yes and no; day and night; langue and parole; all they depend on human ability to anthropomorphize the universe.
2 Recommendations
19th Apr, 2016
Ruurd Groot
Verkeer-Zien - www.verkeerzien.nl
A modest proposal: it might be useful to go back to Leibniz, the originator of formal binary representation. O course (like Gauss), he wasn't much into reconstructing and reporting the true lines of thought he followed to reach the idea, but it must be possible to get some inkling from reading between the lines. Apart from that, a lot has been published about his ideas in general and about the intellectual climate of his time.
1 Recommendation
19th Apr, 2016
Carol Murphy
National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Johanna, I think it's not so much a preference for binary thinking we have, but even although we are aware that the world is complex, binary thinking is a form of heuristic to assist us in understanding and acting in an immediate sense, because if we do not simplify we may become 'paralysed' by seeing too many options on a daily basis in every aspect of living. There is so much information available that reviewing every aspect of our external and internal environments from a variety of perspectives would be cumbersome, thus, heuristic thinking such as binary/polar perspectives can be useful when a decision needs to be made quickly, but is problematic if we apply in areas that need careful considered reflection. For example, nature/nurture dichotomies can impede comprehension of complexities, viewing women in opposition to men is problematic, 'left' v. 'right' politics et cetera...You might be interested in Kannehmann's book "Thinking Fast and Slow", which puts together a lot of research in the area in an easy-read fashion.
3 Recommendations
19th Apr, 2016
Johanna Lönngren
Umeå University
Thanks again for all the interesting thoughts on this topic! I recently found this article re binary thinking: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20865892?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Maybe it is of interest to some of you as well?
19th Apr, 2016
Johanna Lönngren
Umeå University
Thanks again for all the interesting thoughts on this topic! I recently found this article re binary thinking: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20865892?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Maybe it is of interest to some of you as well?
1 Recommendation
19th Apr, 2016
Steven Wallis
Foundation for the Advancement of Social Theory
At the risk of injecting some humor. Take a look at the question and the responses to see how many represent binary thinking. Then, for bonus points, ask yourself if you agree... yes... or... no...?
1 Recommendation
19th Apr, 2016
Steven Wallis
Foundation for the Advancement of Social Theory
More seriously, "Flatland" is an interesting book for helping people understand dimensional thinking is a way out of binary thinking. Briefly, many begin with binary thinking. Where that is recognized (in conversation, publication, etc.) the binary thinker may be encouraged to "stretch" their thinking to "scalar" (Instead of black/white, start thinking about shared of grey). Then to two-dimensional (range of colors and brightness)... and so on to the more complex systems thinking of causally interconnected elements.
1 Recommendation
10th Jun, 2016
Christopher C Rout
University of KwaZulu-Natal
Schrödinger's cat
10th Jun, 2016
Christopher C Rout
University of KwaZulu-Natal
Dear Johanna
I agree with the distinction you make between thinking and decision making. We are quite capable of drawing up lists of several options, each with perhaps different consequences. The binary issue arises at two points of decision: shall I put it on my list?, and which of my list do I prefer? Between these two points we are quite capable of maintaining any number of options. 
8th Jan, 2018
Graziella Masindrazana
University of Antananarivo
Binary thinking is for decision making, you say. But as for decision making in conflict resolution one cannot contend with. The essence of conflict resolution is consensus and it cannot logically go hand in hand with binary thinking.
12th Jul, 2019
Walid Saba
Northeastern University
But Graziella Masindrazana -- a decision, in the end, just another option. So let us say we are trying to chose between option A and option B. The binary decision making function would be:
decide( x ):
if x = A
return False
else:
return True
But that can be extended, to include options that a consensus between A and B, yet in the end, the decision is still binary! Here's the new (more flexible decision function):
decide( x ):
if x = A:
return False
else:
if x = B:
return False
else:
return True
This is related to the fact that any relation can be reduced to a binary relation.
In the end, to either we take option A (or ANY other), and that is a binary decision

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