How to practice nuanced thinking

“This is just wrong.” How many times have you heard that phrase during a heated conversation? Such categorical statements never seem to help in coming to an agreement, or at least to create opportunities to learn. Whether at an interpersonal level or at a broader scale, a lack of nuanced thinking can have a significant impact on our relationships. Instead of encouraging constructive debates, polarised thinking is a source of destructive conflict.

Nuanced thinking versus polarised thinking

The trap of polarised thinking

Polarised thinking, also called “splitting” or “all-or-nothing” thinking, is a type of cognitive distortion that prevents people from formulating and understanding some nuanced statements. It’s a common defence mechanism. Usually, the statements in question have deep personal relevance to the person.

As clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Jennifer Kunst puts it: “The more invested we are in our point of view as being right—morally or intellectually or practically superior—the more difficult it is to listen to another’s point of view. The more invested we are in viewing the other person as wrong—silly or ridiculous or stupid or bad—the more difficult it is to compromise, change, and find a way out or a way through.”

Instead of constructing a nuanced point of view, polarised thinkers tend to classify ideas into extreme categories, such as “good” or “bad”, “always” or “never”, “everything” or “nothing.” These extreme categories can be applied on general ideas and concepts, as well as the way they perceive others and themselves. Statements such as “I’m a complete failure” or “You’re completely wrong” are typical illustrations of polarised thinking.

By failing to practice nuanced thinking, polarised thinkers are often faced with a gap between reality—which is much more complex than an “all-or-nothing” statement can capture—and their perception of reality. This gap often results in further radicalisation.

3 ways to practice nuanced thinking

Except in the case of a related pathology such as borderline personality disorder, polarised thinking is fortunately not a fixed trait. While we are all victims of polarised thinking, especially with topics we care a lot about, it is possible to proactively practice nuanced thinking so we can have more constructive conversations.

  1. Pay attention to automatic responses. Whenever you find yourself jumping to conclusions because an answer seems obvious, take a few seconds to ask yourself whether your conclusion truly captures the nuances of the topic, or if it’s an automatic thought. It’s especially important to manage our automatic responses when discussing topics where we may have deeply ingrained beliefs because of our personal experience.
  2. Beware of false dichotomies. We often create artificial divisions between two ideas and we represent them as being opposed or completely different. For instance, “art versus science” or “taxes versus private property” or when Darth Vader told Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars III: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.” Consider additional options that may not contradict the existing two options, or consider whether these two options are truly incompatible, or whether they lie on a spectrum instead.
  3. Avoid over generalizing. In statistics, overgeneralization may involve basing broad conclusions regarding the results of a survey from a small sample group which doesn’t sufficiently represent an entire population. Evidence from a single event rarely translates to all events. Try to consider the context within which you are evaluating an idea. Instead of relying on past experience only, examine the current evidence. Make sure your sample size is large enough to draw a conclusion, and consider phrasing your statements in a more nuanced way (“I’m fairly confident that…” or “I think that in some cases…”).

While polarised thinking is a common defence mechanism, we can make conscious efforts to practice nuanced thinking, especially around important topics we may not be objective about. Nuanced thinking is not always necessary—it’s okay to use rules of thumb when making small decisions—but it’s important to practice so we can have more constructive conversations.

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