Originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Daily Times-Call.

I live in the shades of grey. Therefore, the increasing use of binary choices in communication has me baffled.  Only two choices?  Why? There’s a whole world out there with infinite choices!

Binary thinking, by definition, is believing that there are only two sides. Everyone must pick one. It seems to be increasingly prevalent. What does this mean for effective communicators, marketers or anyone who wants to actually relate to others?

First understand that the problem with binary thinking is its inaccuracy. That’s bad. Grey areas do exist and are prominent in almost every single issue.  When we’re stuck in binary thinking, we’re engaged in making assumptions. Binary thinking also leads to conflict and detachment.

Where does it originate? It’s a cognitive tendency that’s been developed over time that causes us to categorize information into two sets of possibilities. Sort of like fight or flight. But it can be taken to extremes. One example of is thinking that people are right or wrong, good or bad. It’s believing that in life one succeeds or fails, or that what we see on the Internet is true or false.

Binary bias divides the wide range of options that every challenge or question has into only two possibilities. But, in fact, almost any reality or circumstance lies within a continuum where there are multiple and varied alternatives.

Nothing is completely black or white, things aren’t always good or bad, and people aren’t always either for or against us. Using a label, and its reverse, simplifies the world and turns us into thrifty thinkers, people who end up limiting our great cognitive resources.

The only way to combat this perspective is by allowing for ambiguity, uncertainty, and contradiction. After all, our reality is tremendously complex and sometimes inconsistent. Only by being able to imagine a whole assortment of options will we embrace the full capacity we have to communicate in a meaningful and nuanced manner. The rest is noise.

As communication leaders, what should we do about this often- unconscious binary bias factor? It is fundamental to acknowledge, first, that success can’t be based on our own potential binary bias when working  with a client, or within our business or organization.  Rather, we need to focus on our overall goals and target audiences, and use facts and information to create a successful strategy based on that data. So, be very aware of several common bias blinders and how they may impact  your communication.

The Bandwagon effect takes place when we believe something just because other people believe it.  It’s either go with the bandwagon, or don’t.  Groupthink goes hand in hand with the Bandwagon effect. It suggests that a group of individuals who all agree on one idea will fail to explore any other options that may actually be more effective.

Confirmation bias takes place when we only hear what we want to hear. We only listen to information that supports our beliefs. However, if we can’t get past our own bias and become receptive to all of the information available, we are guaranteed to make poor decisions.

Choice-Supportive bias happens when we feel confident about a decision, despite its flaws, simply because we chose it. Our own egos can be our worst enemy. Blind-Spot bias is simply failure to recognize our own cognitive biases.  We notice the fault in others and completely disregard our own.

If you want to make the best decisions you can, put your biases aside. If you want to communicate in a manner that positively impacts others, put your biases aside.  Life is more rewarding in the shades of grey.

Stacy Cornay is the owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising.  She may be reached at 303-638-7127; scornay@comm-concepts.com; www.comm-concepts.com; Facebook.com/Communication Concepts; Twitter @CommConceptsPR; or LinkedIn.

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