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All-or-Nothing Thinking

In Therapy

A child engaging in all-or-nothing thinking sees things in black and white categories. If his performance falls short of perfect, he sees himself as a total failure.

Children can use this Thinking Error in many different ways.

  • To support a preexisting negative self-image: if the child’s self-esteem is low, he may simply have trouble seeing the good things in life and instead focus on the negative, which becomes the entire picture
  • To rationalize a a lack of effort: if the child sees himself as simply a failure, then it isn’t his fault when his lack of effort results in poor performance; it is simply destiny
  • To rationalize their negative thoughts about others: an adult who did a single thing the child didn’t like is immediately written of as a total jerk because his behavior was not perfect.
  • To maintain a victim mentality: since everyone, at some point, has probably done something negative towards him, the child feels like he is surrounded by antagonists working toward his failure

In Critical Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking is an instance of the informal fallacy of the false dilemma or false dichotomy. The false dilemma reduces a situation to two choices when those two are not necessarily the only choices available; other options are omitted. Quite often, the two choices are the extreme ends of a spectrum of possibilities and all intermediate options are omitted. In other cases, the two choices are represented as being mutually exclusive when, in fact, they are not; you could have your cake and eat it, too.

The false dilemma is common in political rhetoric and advertising. Its manifestation as “black-and-white thinking” is a common component of casual moral judgments. Some examples of the false dilemma in action are:

  • The political tactic, common throughout time, of reducing dissent during conflict by framing the issue as one of “Us vs. Them,” and if you’re not with “Us,” you’re against “Us,” and therefore with “Them.” In reality, it is possible to see the merits and flaws in both side of the conflict, or to take a side in general but not without reservations or criticisms. It is possible to remain entirely neutral, and it is possible to have no horse in the race, so to speak, and so not to care at all about the conflict.
  • Also in the realm of politics, policy is often argued against if it is perceived to be only partially effective at achieving its goals, e.g. some claim that the Americans with Disabilities Act cannot possibly provide equal access for every conceivable disability, therefore it should be stricken from the books. All else being equal (and without making a statement regarding the political value of the claim), this argument is based on a false dilemma: if the law is not entirely effective, then it is entirely a failure and should not exist.
  • Advertisements often promote their product as the only solution to a given problem. Ads for weight-loss products, for example, will often claim that their product is the only reliable way to a thinner you, creating the dilemma “Buy our product or stay fat.” Ads for cleaning products may claim that theirs is the only product that does the job, creating the dilemma “Buy our product or stay dirty.” Both of these types of approaches ignore (or explicitly downplay) other options: other products, other approaches, etc.
  • People tend to think of other people as either “good” or “bad” people, with little or no interplay between the two. They place people into two categories without recognizing the “grey area” in which most of us exist. People who are seen to do inappropriate things are thought of as wholly “bad,” or figures or moral authority are seen as unimpeachably “good.” An ethical false dilemma ignores the good and bad within each individual, the merits and flaws we all possess, and the moral interstice in which most people live most of their lives.

Bridging the Gap

When a child engages in all-or-nothing thinking, he is reducing his personal and social world down to two possibilities when many more are present. The thought process goes like this:

You can either be a success or failure [creation of the false dilemma]. People who are successes don’t fail [ignoring other options]. I messed up once, so I’m not a success. I guess that means I’m a failure [application of the dilemma to self-image].

Likewise, when the child creates false dilemmas about his social world, it leads to all-or-nothing thinking. The thought process is almost identical: people can either be good or bad (where “good” is equated with “perfect” and “bad” with “monstrous”), and a good person doesn’t do bad things, so when someone does a bad thing, it means they’re a bad person.

The child’s thought process ignores the spectrum of possibilities between “perfect success” and “perfect failure,” or between “always good” and “always bad.” He doesn’t grade these opposites based on the relative presence of the two, but chooses instead to think of them as discrete and exclusionary categories. Once the child understands how these types of negative thoughts rest on a false dilemma, it is easy to generalize the all-or-nothing thinking error to other parts of life.

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