Thursday, October 13, 2016

All-or-Nothing Thinking: An Enemy of Progress

Do you get the feeling that we are collectively on the precipice of one of those defining periods in our history?  As a society, we are at a crossroads in so many ways; necessary changes are hopefully around the corner as they relate to health care, economics, politics, on down to the sociology of how we treat each other as human-beings. 

Change is rarely easy, though, as essential as it may be.  When we converse on the human condition, we understand that the characteristics that define our world are constantly shifting, but change is still often wrought with struggle.  A certain way of doing things becomes the standard and, when it comes time to reevaluate and redefine the standard, there is a common tendency to put up a mental wall or push back in the face of change.

Though our minds are capable of accepting that change is a natural part of life, we live in a world that, perhaps now more than ever before, gravitates toward an all-or-nothing attitude.  We collectively seek to oversimplify that which is far from simple and, in actuality, end up further complicating matters.  Politics offer both a prime and timely example.  A typical list of the key issues is fairly complex and lengthy, yet the manner in which people often choose elected officials to represent their interests on a larger scale has been reduced to a pair of overly simplistic categories. 

This year’s Presidential election is poignantly proof positive.  Given the social climate and the aura of imminent, prominent changes on the horizon that we need to cultivate and embrace rather than block, it would seem that, this year, it would be extremely important to pick a leader who can help guide our country through a potentially era-defining transition.  Please forgive anyone who views this election as a choice between the lesser of two evils, a borderline reality TV show masquerading as a presidential race and a hallmark instance of the need for more than two viable options.  Unfortunately, in politics as in many areas of life right now, black and white thinking is an enemy of progress. 

In the world of psychology, there is a disorder named for this type of thinking; it is called splitting and it is used to describe the all-or-nothing mindset as a defense mechanism for when people are unable to decipher the reality that there are both positive and negative aspects of various situations.  One could say that it is a very childlike state of mind.  When you are young and your mind begins to develop, one of the signs of maturity is the ability to process information beyond fixed and finite categories.  If you tell a child that he/she has to eat food in order to live, the less mature child might assume that if they fail to eat dinner, he/she could die; conversely, the more mature child would be able to assimilate that skipping a meal would not necessarily be problematic, but that skipping several meals could be dangerous.  As the ability to form more intricate personal relationships grows and our responsibilities increase, the psychological skill of seeing the shades of gray in life becomes more important; it also allows us to be self-aware.

It is important that we recognize that the general shift toward black and white thinking is detrimental to our society.  Another socially-relevant example would be the hysteria created by athletes not standing for the national anthem in protest of modern race relations.  As with politics, the vast majority of responses to the matter fall to one extreme or the other.  San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his contemporaries have been labeled by many as blatantly disrespectful of the United States of America, with one prominent voice of opposition comparing their act to flag burning. 

The subject is an important one, however, and should not be marginalized by distracting from the point of the stance being taken by these athletes that race relations – and, by extension, equality overall – need to continue to improve.  The silent protest has generated consistent attention that has kept race relations at the forefront of the national conversation without rioting or any other forms of violence.  If we can snap out of the all-or-nothing mindset, we can increase our awareness on this perplexing issue and do something to help make positive strides as did UNC basketball coach, Roy Williams, who was at first “very angry” at the anthem-kneeling but, after listening to Kaepernick’s message, came around to at least supporting the reasoning behind it. 

A typically accepted thought within the health community is that people who are not healthy are less capable of making sound decisions.  That the United States ranks last among industrialized countries in overall health may offer insight into our national propensity toward black and white thinking, which has permeated health care too.  Generally, we are not well, so we do not think particularly well, and our system for getting well is dilapidated; it has become a vicious cycle. 

Health care in America is predominantly built on diagnosing symptom sets and treating them with medication; patients consequently either fit into this box or that box, each with its own drug treatment protocol.  This system may be scientifically-based, but it is logically flawed and, statistically, it has not proven to enhance our health and well-being. 

A local resident recently experienced several hours of severe foot pain.  She was advised to immediately seek a medical opinion, despite the fact that the pain had completely gone away days prior.  When she saw the doctor, she was told that her symptoms were classic descriptors of Gout; blood work was done and she was sent home with a prescription for a medication specific to treating Gout before the lab results came back.  Days later, they called and emphatically told her that she should immediately cease the use of the previously prescribed medication, as it turned out that her blood work showed no signs of Gout; she was then given a clean bill of health. 

The above example is a microcosm of the dangers of the all-or-nothing mindset.  Your health gives you the foundation for every other aspect of your life; largely limiting the scope of health care to diagnosing and treating symptoms therefore gives us a fragile foundation for our lives.  The universal truth is that everybody is different and nobody should be pigeonholed into a single classification.  Our awareness of the realities of health care is the first step to reshaping it.   

Understandably, it can be very difficult to break the habit of the all-or-nothing thinking, but we have to be up to the challenge because that attitude is hindering our ability to evolve as a society.  We have the innate capacity to mature our mindset to see the shades of gray and be the best possible versions of ourselves, but we will struggle so long as we restrict our thinking to black and white.

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