Cognitive Distortion: Dichotomous Thinking

Dichotomous reasoning involves viewing situations as binary rather than continuous. Dichotomous sometimes called “black or white” thinking, ignores shades of gray. A dichotomous thinker only acknowledges right-wrong, ignoring dilemmas with no right choice and non-normative information; or success-failure, ignoring effort and where success moved to failure; or perfect-incompetent, ignoring learning and practice gains; and big-small, ignoring medium and all sizes in between.


The problem with this type of cognitive distortion is that most of life happens in the grey are between black-white ends, which limits the options for dichotomous thinkers by shrinking their world to extremes. This also makes it hard to make positive meaning out of ordinary experiences, which is an important brain function. To help expand the mind away from extremes and give more meaning to life’s smaller events, try this exercise:

Let’s say you have one or more of these beliefs:

  • You can marry for love or money.
  • You can’t trust rich people.
  • Rich people are shallow.

Now you have won the lottery, you might then think something like this:

  • I can either be rich or be loved.
  • I can either have tremendous wealth or be kind and trustworthy.
  • I can either have money or have a deep, meaningful life.

Now your options are limited to keep the money and be superficial, or give up the money and have depth. To get more options, try rewriting those same thoughts with and instead of or.

  • I intend to be wealthy and live a life filled with love by paying attention to the feelings of my self and others.
  • I intend to be rich and trustworthy and kind by staying in touch with my values.
  • I intend to have both a wealthy and deeply fulfilling life by giving to others who are less fortunate.

Now you have at least 3 options, and possibly many more. To help support your new thinking, find examples (called ‘exceptions’) of people in the world who represent the and-statement.

  • Paul Newman had wealth, and love in his life, staying married to Joanne Woodward from 1958-2008.
  • Oprah is very rich and also stays in touch with her values, people trust her, and see her as kind.
  • Bill Gates is super rich and also has a meaningful life through his many foundations.

Meaningful life     ————————–   Meaning and Matter     —————————–   Material Life

(Depth, love, poverty)              (Authentic, relationships, generosity)               (Shallow, alone, wealthy)

To extend the positive benefits of the exercise and alter negative behaviors in your own life, take a personally held set of dichotomous beliefs and rewrite them as a continuum, filling in the middle with and types of statements.

Source:     Jackie Gartman


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