Do you watch Fox News or MSNBC? Avoid the pitfall of binary bias.

Binary thinking, also known as dichotomous thinking, occurs when concepts, ideas, and problems are overly simplified and put into only two categories. It wrongly presumes that there are only two sides to most issues and that only one side can be right.

For instance, politically, most Americans choose to align with one of two parties: Republican or Democratic. Relative to climate change, there are deniers and believers. Is coffee good for you or bad for you? Every religion has multiple subsets of binary categories: Are you pre-tribulation or post-tribulation? Sunni or Shia? If you’re a Jew do you believe in the afterlife or not?

Cable TV channels are notorious for perpetuating binary thinking. They present issues as black and white with no gray area. When was the last time you heard a Fox News or MSNBC broadcaster say, “This is a complicated issue, so let’s take the time to consider all sides of this story.”  

The truth is, most issues are best considered on a continuum of information and perspectives, but a basic human tendency is to reduce complex concepts, ideas, and problems into two categories. Instead of wrestling with a complex continuum we simply create two extremes. And once we choose a position we double down on it, creating an us versus them mentality.

Why do we fall prey to binary bias?

  • It’s a mental shortcut. Instead of taking the time to investigate all the aspects of a particular issue, it’s easier and quicker to simply reduce it to only two positions and embrace one.  
  • We may want to bring closure to an issue, so we quickly create two extreme positions and choose one. 
  • We are susceptible to herd mentality and we readily accept the position of our tribe. 
  • We have a need for clarification and certainty so we seek the reassurance of an either-or classification. Richard Dawkins calls this “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” Instead, we should become comfortable with ambiguity and complex continuums.  

Once we succumb to binary bias, our chosen conviction is subsequently reinforced by confirmation bias. We look for evidence that underscores our position, talk exclusively to people who share our position, and begin to demonize those who think differently. Binary thinking often leads to conflict and detachment.

How do we overcome binary bias?

  • Pursue and embrace complexity and resist oversimplification. Most issues are not black and white; gray areas exist, so acknowledging complexity is a step toward understanding and credibility. 
  • Engage in full-spectrum thinking. Instead of making assumptions and broad generalizations, consider the full range of perspectives on a given topic. Investigate nuances and explore gray areas. Don’t restrict yourself to just two options. 

Humorist Robert Benchley cleverly observed, “There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” Don’t be among the former.

Here’s part of a helpful article by Clay Drinko titled “7 Ways to Avoid Binary Thinking”.

26 Replies to “Do you watch Fox News or MSNBC? Avoid the pitfall of binary bias.”

  1. Excellent, Don! Thank you for sharing. I am going to share this article with all my family and select friends. Perfect did fission for today’s culture!

    May God continue to bless you and your influence for His Kingdom,

    Jan Hassell Blake

  2. So true, Don.
    And, I loved the irony of Robert Benchley.

    P.S. I so wanted to end the above statement with an “exclamation point,” but have settles for these inappropriate quote-marks instead.

    Enjoy this wonderful weather. ?

  3. I agree somewhat. However there are shows, such as “The Five” and a few others that has people who are Democrats, Republicans including Liberals an oftentimes extremely right or left. There are anchors who are Democrats.
    To name a few; Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and every group discussion shows, such as “The Five” and Greg Gutfield’s new show.

    It seems I find Republicans saying the same about all the news that is democratically based. CNN?? “Come on man!”

  4. I’d rather consider what I do is try to find a news or commentary source that most closely aligns with my (hopefully) Biblical world view. Not to imply that one side is completely Biblical, or the other side completely antithetical, but our country is a two-party system that extends from politics to our living rooms.

    1. Bryan, It’s also helpful to intentionally watch news shows that represent different opinions. And, sometimes foreign news agencies offer good perspectives; I enjoy BBC.

  5. Don – I enjoyed your comment about falling into binary thinking, even when problems are complex. It reminds me of my favorite Albert Einstein quote: “Complex problems should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

    Kristine & I have moved to the Chicago area to be near family. I certainly enjoyed my time at Stonebriar.


    1. Roger, it’s so good to hear from you. I have fond memories of our times together. I’m glad you’re near family. Take care.

  6. Don…THANK YOU!! Binary bias is destroying the love of the faithful in Christ. How can we love our neighbors as ourselves without truly loving them as Christ loves us. The venomous hatred that is being created by both sides is truly a test for us as Christians. We need to block out the calls from both radicals and reactionaries and focus on working through these challenges with patience and love.

  7. Dear Don,
    I recognise that if I read a petition or campaign on social media and there appears to be an innocent victim, it is too easy to sign up due to a mixture of sympathy for the victim and disgust with the perpetrator. But how often do I really know the facts?
    In the UK at the moment we have a real shortage of truck drivers but we also have a large number people on benefits and unemployed. Our Government has told the employers that they caused the problem by not paying decent wages. However, having been unemployed, I know that the Job Centre rarely helps a person get a job and they have never rung me as a Recruitment Officer to suggest a candidate. So where should our sympathies lie?
    In the story of Mary and Martha, how would we re-act if Martha told us that her selfish sister left her to provide all the hospitality to her visitors?
    I suspect that we are now too easily influenced by headline stories and campaigns as investigative journalism no longer seems to exist. If you can read both sides to the argument you can weigh up the probability of the truth of a story.
    Thanks Don for yet another thought provoking piece.

    1. Thank you, Angela, for taking the time to respond. I’m trying to discipline myself to not let a first impression be my lasting impression. There’s always multiple sides to every situation.

  8. Excellent essay, Don! If everyone would take this to heart, we would eliminate most of the strife in our country. I would only add an admonition to develop empathy: when encountering someone who is somewhere else on the spectrum (usually toward one end or the other), try to develop a sense of curiosity as to the factors that led the person to that position…rather than instantly labeling and scorning them.

    1. Thanks, Lyndell, for sharing wise insights. You’re right, arguing seldom works. Listening and civil conversation will.

  9. Hello, Don! I love to think with you as I read your essays. And I always “learn” something.

    I did want to make a comment on this essay, however. I am a serious consumer of news from many sources — a news junkie, if you will. And Fox News is definitely a part of that. This may not have been true years ago, but in the past few years I would suggest that if you do not listen to Fox News, you cannot possibly be getting a full picture of the news. There are many serious news items that you will never hear of, or will get a very different impression of, if you listen only to the networks or CNN and do not tune into Fox.

    When people reference Fox News as an example of the pitfalls of binary bias, it is obvious that they are clinging to a limited stereotype, and perhaps are not watching it at all. There are many people on Fox who are nearly apolitical, e.g., Neil Cavuto. There are numerous commentators from The Wall Street Journal, with their own program on the weekends, who appear regularly on Fox News. In addition, many programs on Fox News have regular contributors on the left, and I find them very balanced. (Another reader referred to The Five. I watch it frequently.) This will probably come as a surprise to people who have a stereotypical view of Fox News — one that is not deserved, in my opinion.

    During the Trump years, there were many commentators and guests on Fox who had nothing good to say about the man. “Fair and balanced” is more than a slogan at Fox. As a consumer of Fox News, CNN, ABC, CBS, The Dallas Morning News, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, as well as many sources on my stock market app, I would suggest that Fox is perhaps the least binary choice among the lot, when taken in toto! (And yes, I fully intended an exclamation point.) Ironically, I have many friends on the right for whom Fox News is no longer their go-to.

    Thanks for letting me share my perspective on this essay.

    1. Carolyne, thanks for taking the time to respond. I have carefully read what you’ve written, but I disagree with you. Fox News is on the right of the political spectrum, perhaps not the far right, but the right. On any particular news item, flip between Fox and MSNBC and you’ll hear two different spins on the same topic. In this post, I’m not arguing that one is correct and the other false; but they do represent binary thinking. I am in favor of listening to both news channels. It’s difficult to hear about news events without a slant added to the event.
      We live in a crazy political environment.
      Thanks again for writing. Don

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