Do our brains make us think in binaries?

yes or no sign
© GajusShutterstock

"Good" and "bad" get a lot of play in this human world of ours, even if most of the world is somewhere in between. A recent study about this phenomenon could explain some of our most irrational behavior.

A new study in Psychological Science found that people put information into one of two categories. A meal is expensive or cheap. A politician is either a hero or a crook. Everything is all or none, yes or no, 1 or 0. The researchers called this the "binary bias," and they found it everywhere.

"This effect is not confined to explicit statistical estimates, but also influences how people use data to make health, financial, and public policy decisions," write the scientists.

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is nonsense. A $40 meal is expensive, but nowhere near as pricey as a $400 meal. One politician might have messed up protocol, but that doesn't make her as problematic as the guy who tried to sell a Senate seat.

The binary bias is a simple idea, but it explains a lot of things that would otherwise be befuddling. Some people think adding a spoonful of sugar to a fruit smoothie is just as unhealthy as drinking soda, for instance. Others believe getting a B+ on a test is failing. I've heard people say America is basically Nazi Germany at the moment. These beliefs, which seem ridiculous when taken at face value, make sense if you understand humans are wont to divide things into two categories.

This research also explains why nobody seems to care when a problem gets just a bit worse. The climate is getting one degree hotter ... now two degrees ... now three. In reality, each degree is a big deal. A single degree could mean starvation for entire countries and extinctions of millions of species. But the human brain doesn't comprehend that. Climate change is either dangerous or not — just how dangerous may be something we don't process.

This sort of thinking isn't all bad (isn't thinking so just more binary bias?). Binary bias is a shortcut that helps us process lots of information quickly. But knowing about this bias could help us notice when it's serving us ... and when it isn't.

how choices work© Ilana Strauss

Do our brains make us think in binaries?
A new study suggests people's brains don't really process spectrums.

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