Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 26;   June 26, 2002: Think in Living Color

Think in Living Color

by

Feeling trapped, with no clear way out, often leads to anger. One way to defuse your anger is to notice false traps, particularly the false dichotomy. When you notice that you're the target of a false dichotomy, you can control your anger more easily — and then the trap often disappears.

Jared could see it coming, as Curt, the Director of Customer Service, pressed on: "With such a dramatic increase in the number of dissatisfied customers, we have to create a special team of systems experts temporarily attached to Customer Service to address the accumulating issues in the field. Here's the list of people we need."

A sunset

Sunset. Taking time to see all the colors around you — to really take them in — is a good way to practice seeing the nuances of situations.

Jared felt angry. A typical power move — Curt wanted to draft Jared's best people. If that actually happened, many of his systems experts would probably leave the company.

When you notice you're angry, put on your detective hat. You might find that something is threatening your self-esteem. When Jared put on his detective hat, he realized that he was trapped in a false dichotomy — an error of reasoning in which we fail to notice the full range of available options.

False dichotomy, or "black-and-white thinking," sees the world in stark terms, in which the only solution to a problem is an extreme and over-simplified path that might actually be worse than the place we left.

False dichotomies can be
either honest errors
of reasoning, or
deliberate devices
for refuting an
opposing argument
False dichotomies appear not only as honest errors of reasoning, but also as deliberate devices for refuting an opposing argument. For example, the slogan "You're either part of the solution, or part of the problem," is a false dichotomy. "The" solution is typically "my" solution, and no other positions are helpful.

Back in control, Jared gave a reasoned response. He wondered if there weren't other ways to solve the problem: by asking for volunteers, or offering an enticing compensation package, or even training Customer Service staff. At first, Curt fended off these ideas, but when others in the meeting showed interest, they delegated a team of three to study the options and recommend an approach. By recognizing a false dichotomy, Jared was able to stay calm and offer alternatives.

We adopt extreme solutions when we can't see — or won't see — the full range of options before us. Here are some other examples of black-and-white or false dichotomy thinking:

  • Business is down — we have to cut expenses.
  • If we don't measure it, it'll never happen.
  • If we can't measure it, it's not a goal.
  • Zero tolerance
  • Zero defects
  • If you don't make this date, the company will sink.
  • All they care about is their bonuses.
  • We have to make sacrifices if we want <whatever>.

Very little in engineering, marketing, or management — or in Life — is so simple that there can be only one or two approaches. When people present their favored approach as the only alternative, be on guard for "black-and-white" thinking. And if you can, show them how to think in living color. Go to top Top  Next issue: Your Wisdom Box  Next Issue

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We often describe someone who arrogantly breezes through life with swagger and evident disregard for others as having a "big ego." Maybe so. And maybe not. Let's have a closer look.
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Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction, has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?

See also Emotions at Work, Critical Thinking at Work and Rhetorical Fallacies for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cargo containers at a port of entryComing May 31: Unresponsive Suppliers: III
When suppliers have a customer orientation, we can usually depend on them. But government suppliers are a special case. Available here and by RSS on May 31.
A blue peacock of IndiaAnd on June 7: The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game
The Knowledge One-Upmanship Game is a pattern of group behavior in the form of a contest to determine which player knows the most arcane fact. It can seem like innocent fun, but it can disrupt a team's ability to collaborate. Available here and by RSS on June 7.

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