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What Is Wrong With Dichotomous Thinking

By June 30, 2015May 29th, 2019No Comments

It Is Time To Think Beyond Dichotomy

An old joke has it that there are two kinds of people in this world, those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. This comment is funny because it is paradoxical. It makes its point by defeating the same point at the very same time. Because of this teasing of the human brain, that wants consistency and simple patterns, it can lead us think more deeply, think beyond dichotomy.

Many forms of psychotherapy, in particular cognitive-behavioral approaches, try to help individuals get unstuck from dichotomous or black and white thinking. Such a change allows them to resolve their issues more creatively and effectively, as they are freed from the prison of limited choice.

However, in the United States, the educational and political systems support and promote dichotomy in areas that are so much more complex. This cultural thinking can also be cured by breaking out of these dichotomies, by adding complexity and by complicating matters.

I will say this again, as it is anathema to many. Critical analysis requires complexity, the ability to think beyond simplistic dichotomies. We must complicating matters.

Gender has been one of these areas and has been challenged for many years by feminist scholars of various disciplines. As far back as the 1970’s, androgyny[1] was introduced as a way to remove the straight jackets of masculinity or femininity. A Spanish language version, known as the Latin American Sex Role Inventory[2], has also been used extensively. That was only the beginning and is continuing today in the work of many scholars and in the social action of many feminist and LGBT activists. Gender is not a simple duality.

The same is so of race, or as many of us prefer to call it, racialization. This is because there is no biological race. In the U.S., it was invented by slaveholders, who wanted to justify their misdeeds and still feel that they were good Christians, despite the fact that they were enslaving an entire population. Suddenly there was race, Black and White, although any person with two eyes can see that these colors on human skin are neither black nor white. A war was fought over racialization, but did not eradicate the colonization of the mind of many citizens. Biologically, there is no race; these are invented dichotomies. Discussions that cite Mexicans or Latins as a third race are rooted in this unconscious American predilection to race. Mexican or Latin is not a race any more than are Black and White.

The discussion is beginning. It must continue. Black and White thinking is damaging and is obsolete. We must all free ourselves from these dichotomies that now entrap us and divide us. What you can do is think about it. Think critically. And we must be courageous enough to have a public discussion, knowing in advance how painful it might be, but how much it would multiply possibility for every individual regardless of racial designation.


[1] Bem, S.L., The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 155-162. 1974.

[2] Kaschak, E., & Sharratt, S. Sex roles and androgyny in Latin America: A psychological perspective. Reportorio Americano, Spring, l979.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.