Dichotomous Thinking and Authoritarian Personality

Either you do what I say or you are against me. What I say and think is the only truth, the rest are falsehoods or nonsense. This type of reasoning defines the authoritarian person, that whose thought is always as dichotomous as rigid.

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Dichotomous thinking defines those people who construct their reality based on categories. For them everything is white or black, good or bad, either you are by their side or you are against them. This tendency to evaluate what surrounds them based on such extreme or polarized concepts very often defines a clearly authoritarian profile with which it is very complicated to live together.

Absolute terms do not abound as much as we think in our social universe. This is something that we must understand in the first place. That is, experience always ends up showing us that absolute happiness, for example, is not possible. Also that the human being is never completely good or totally evil. Our reality is changing, complex, full of nuances, and being able to accept all that variability is key to well-being and intelligence.

However, there are those who insist that everything around them fit a rigid and stable scheme, a pattern as simple as possible so that everything is under control. Moreover, as an old Serbian proverb says in a mocking way, there are two types of people in this world, those who believe that there are two types of people and those who do not. Beyond the ironic (and successful) of this idea, resides a quite serious aspect.

This dichotomous approach is the source of many prejudices, of those biases that build the most harmful stereotypes. This is something that psychologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer told us in their day. Now, there is a fact in which it is worth reflecting: dichotomous thinking is fought by encouraging critical and flexible thinking. Something that, sadly, is not always applied in schools or taught at home.

“Who thinks little, errs much”.

-Leonardo da Vinci-

Dichotomous thinking and the primitive mind

Dichotomous or black and white thinking is harmful and should be obsolete. It is the remnant of a past where the invented and clearly biased dichotomies abounded in excess (some races superior to others, one gender stronger than another, etc.). Now, something that we are told from the field of social psychology is that this type of cognitive approach is much more than we think.

Some may surprise you but, in a way, thinking in absolute terms is much easier. The reason? It does not require effort and this means that there are many people who apply this scheme of thought without realizing it. They do it when they see things in terms of good or bad, of right or wrong, without appreciating the intermediate nuances, those that, often, with a little more care and empathy, allow us to see a wider and richer reality.

It should be noted that psychologists such as Aaron T. Beck already defined this type of reasoning in the 60s as a ‘primitive and immature thought’. Thus, according to the father of cognitive therapy, who thinks in absolute terms and applies this type of bias, is characterized by making use of a type of very rigid mental processes. They are the following:

  • They only look at the global aspects of reality. They are not capable of analyzing and conceptualizing certain information in scales, degrees or dimensions.
  • Thinking is also invariable and irreversible.

Dichotomous thinking and authoritarianism

Aaron T. Beck also indicated at the time that this type of mental focus is not, by itself, indicative of any mental disorder. However, sometimes dichotomous thinking is often added to other symptoms to shape clinical conditions such as borderline personality disorder.

On the other hand, where it is usually present is in authoritarian behavior. Today we even have a scale to measure dichotomous thinking, and it is through studies like the one carried out by Dr. Atkushi Oshio, of the University of Tokyo, where we discovered the intimate relationship between authoritarianism and ‘ black and white thinking. ‘

According to this work, dichotomous thinking is common in narcissistic people with low self-esteem, who also present an authoritarian behavior.

They are people who do not tolerate ambiguity, who need to have everything under control and who tend to devalue anyone who thinks in opposition to them.
Also, another factor that dreams to appear in this type of personality, is perfectionism.

The need to train our cognitive flexibility

To reverse dichotomous thinking we must promote cognitive flexibility from a very early age. This executive function would allow us, among other things, to have a greater ability to solve problems. After all, something that does not accept the rigid and authoritarian personality is the contradiction. However, if there is something that abounds in our daily reality is the complexity and variability.

Therefore being able to assume this wealth of stimuli and categories from a more open, respectful and flexible point of view, would enrich us much more as human beings. Taking other points of view into account is synonymous with empathy and intelligence. In addition, flexible thinking, as opposed to dichotomous and rigid, shapes a lifestyle where we can adapt much better to the complexities of our environment.

We will feel less frustrations, we will be more creative, tolerant and prepared to analyze, value and connect much better with everything that surrounds us. Let us therefore try to apply this approach on a day-to-day basis and combat those authoritarian glances committed to creating a world that suits you.