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Black-and-White Thinking

The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World

By Kevin Dutton
13-minute read
Audio available
Black-and-White Thinking by Kevin Dutton

Black and White Thinking (2020) examines the human brain’s irresistible impulse to sort things into binary categories: black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. The instinct to categorize is strong –⁠ and we have evolution to thank for it. But while categorization helped us survive in ancient times – when every trip into the forest was life or death – it’s become an obstacle in the modern world. Today, life’s rarely black-and-white, but often shades of gray.

  • Anyone fascinated by the human brain
  • People who love to pick apart the intricacies of language
  • Those who want to think more clearly in their daily lives

Kevin Dutton is a British psychologist who specializes in the study of psychopathy and persuasion. He’s a researcher at the University of Oxford and the author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths and Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion.

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Black-and-White Thinking

The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World

By Kevin Dutton
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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Black-and-White Thinking by Kevin Dutton
Synopsis

Black and White Thinking (2020) examines the human brain’s irresistible impulse to sort things into binary categories: black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. The instinct to categorize is strong –⁠ and we have evolution to thank for it. But while categorization helped us survive in ancient times – when every trip into the forest was life or death – it’s become an obstacle in the modern world. Today, life’s rarely black-and-white, but often shades of gray.

Key idea 1 of 8

Evolution gave humans the gift of categorization.

You probably don’t remember when exactly you started categorizing the things around you. That’s because categorization is a skill humans learn at an early age. Very early, in fact.

In a 2005 study, developmental psychologist Lisa Oakes showed pictures of cats to a group of four-month-old infants. The cats were shown two at a time, and each pair was on screen for 15 seconds. First, Oakes would show six pairs of cats; then, she would add a new picture to each pair: either a new cat or a dog.

The result? The infants spent more time looking at the dogs than the unfamiliar cats. That’s because the infants saw the dogs as a new category. So their brains were processing the dogs differently and adding them to a brand-new grouping. If this study is any indication, our brains are designed to categorize.

The key message here is: Evolution gave humans the gift of categorization.

When we’re born, the world is a confusing swirl of sensations that can be difficult to make sense of. That’s where categorization comes in. Categories help us sort the mess into more easily understood, meaningful piles.

Just imagine what life would be like if you couldn’t form categories. Say you walk into a friend’s backyard. She has a sprinkler on the ground –⁠ but your brain isn’t aware of the category “watering device.” Immediately, you start to wonder what that object is. Is it dangerous? Could it kill you? Living like this would be impossible.

Clearly, categorization is still very important today. But it was even more so for our ancient ancestors.

A rustle in the bushes, a shadow on the wall, a ripple on the water –⁠ any of these things could have spelled death. We needed categories to help us recognize survival threats. And our brains gave us the binary distinction of fight versus flight.

Next, evolution equipped us with two other major binaries: us versus them and right versus wrong. Both of these were meant to increase social cohesion. Us versus them led us to favor those in our in-group over our out-group. And the idea of right versus wrong reinforced group solidarity, discouraged self-interest, and helped resolve conflicts.

Categorization helped our ancestors survive. But in the modern world, it frequently gets us into trouble – as we’ll see in the next blink.

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