Overcoming Extremism (In All Areas of Life)


Fact: the oldest parts of our brains evolved to make quick judgements.

“That’s a big snake. Bad! Run away!”

“That’s an attractive person of the opposite sex! Good! Pass along the DNA!”

Not only did snap judgements help our species survive by avoiding death and reproducing, they also helped us conserve precious resources. Weighing pros and cons, considering context, and asking thoughtful questions all require time and energy—time and energy that was better spent on more important matters, like avoiding snakes, getting it on, and foraging for food.

Though we long exist in small tribes on the Savannah, judging remains in our nature. People embrace extremes in everything from politics, to diet, to fitness, to religion, to leadership style.

Aligning with an extreme is, in most cases, a form of lazy thinking. This is by definition. An extreme precludes investigation, shifts in context, and edge cases. Not having to think, resting in the facade that certainty means right, may make us feel good, but that doesn’t mean it is good.

Why? Because life is, well, complicated. Most issues are not black and white but grey. The answer to most big questions is “It depends.”

The Nobel Prize winning economist Danny Kahneman says, “When someone says something, don’t ask yourself if it is true. Ask what it might be true of.”

The unfortunate thing is that many of the places in which modern discourse occurs—social media, in the comments section, on cable news—are a lot like the Savannah, in that they reward quick, strong, and certain judgements and penalize ambiguity, patience, and discernment. Not only do you have more time to scroll or get to the next story if you prioritize speed and certainty, but you also have a better chance of going viral (which is, I guess, somehow a reward).

I fear the types of systemic changes that would favor a deeper discourse are a ways off, though they are at least being called for in high places. Personally, all we can do is practice a kind of deeper thinking and conversation ourselves and among our intimate communities, and encourage others to do the same. (And not take the bait in today’s Savannah-equivalents; easier said than done, I know.)

There’s also this, which brings us full circle: The main argument here, to embrace nuance and ambiguity, ought to be itself embraced with nuance and ambiguity. Some things really are black and white. Sometimes hate is just hate. Sometimes climate change is just climate change. Sometimes vaccines just work. Trying to make these topics super complex, nuanced, and all “it depends-y” is itself a form of lazy thinking. A little principle that can help: many of our big problems are clear and straightforward, but their solutions are almost always complicated. Too many people try to complicate the former and simplify the latter.


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1 comment

  • As a black and white thinker (and up until reading this post I would have said “…and proud of it!”), I so appreciate the bomb Brad dropped on my thinking – black and white thinking is lazy.

    I will be thinking about how to be slate gray and cream for awhile working myself toward more shades of gray because I do agree that this is lazy. I have always said how easy it is to be black and white – fast decision-making, etc. And I used to think that that was a good thing. I have realized from a discussion group I’ve been in the past 10 months that this way of thinking has caused me to take a position which I thought at the time was a good one but then miss years of new info that would have changed my position and therefore my actions.

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