One of the most impedimental patterns of thought that humans subject themselves to is the “Enforced EITHER / OR” pattern. Otherwise articulated by Jim Collins as “The Tyranny of the OR” or also called “dichotomous thinking”.
This applies around the board from business to psychology to personal relationships to philosophy to science and all the way back again.
Of all the things we do to constrain ourselves within our own minds, I believe this is one of the greatest: We fail to embrace paradox, (or rather, “seemingly paradoxical realities”) and by so doing miss out on some glorious insights and liberation of our minds. We force ourselves to think of “balance”, instead of yin and yang. We think you have to be black (one extreme) or white (another extreme) or grey (a balance or compromise), but don’t understand that you could be both black AND white AND not grey all at once.
We align our model of reality along two dimensions, whereas reality could have more dimensions, less dimensions, or maybe dimensions don’t even make sense as a way to model all of reality!
Cognitive dissonance — a hard-wired reality for survival
In case you’ve never heard of cognitive dissonance before, here’s a simple example: I know fact A, and I know fact B, but fact A and B directly contradict each other (they cannot both be true at once). Uh-oh. Now what? That feels very uncomfortable.
Wikipedia gives a great definition:
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals tend to become psychologically uncomfortable and they are motivated to attempt to reduce this dissonance, as well as actively avoiding situations and information which are likely to increase it.
We are wired to avoid internal inconsistency, or cognitive dissonance. It is literally a requirement for life that we think our internal model of reality is accurate and internally consistent; because survival requires decision making, and decision making requires a consistent model of reality.
Honestly, for the most part this all makes a lot of good sense. This is BRILLIANT wiring:
Imagine trying to make a decision whether to go to the watering hole to drink water if you both KNOW there is water there and KNOW there is not water there. Decision making becomes impossible with an inconsistent model of reality. Imagine if you both KNOW it is daytime and KNOW it is night-time, how then would you decide whether to go to sleep?
The unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance exists for a very good reason. Without this tendency to avoid or resolve dissonance, our species may not have survived up until now.
This is part of what Seth Godin coined as the “lizard brain” — a “placeholder” term if you will, for the leftover mental weaknesses that come as a result of man’s biology or sociology.
The Tyranny of the OR, the Genius of the AND
In Jim Collin’s “Build to Last” he articulates the eventual result of our fear of cognitive dissonance in the phrase “The Tyranny of the OR”: The unwillingness to embrace paradox. This concept was so critical to the message of the book that there was an entire interlude dedicated just to it (UM, Jim, hope you don’t mind…):
You’ll notice throughout the rest of this book that we use the yin/yang symbol from Chinese dualistic philosophy. We’ve consciously selected this symbol to represent a key aspect of highly visionary companies: They do not oppress themselves with what we call the “Tyranny of the OR”—the rational view that cannot easily accept paradox, that cannot live with two seemingly contradictory forces or ideas at the same time. The “Tyranny of the OR” pushes people to believe that things must be either A OR B, but not both….
Instead of being oppressed by the “Tyranny of the OR,” highly visionary companies liberate themselves with the “Genius of the AND”—the ability to embrace both extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time. Instead of choosing between A OR B, they figure out a way to have both A AND B…
We’re not talking about mere balance here. “Balance” implies going to the midpoint, fifty-fifty, half and half. A visionary company doesn’t seek balance between short-term and long-term, for example. It seeks to do very well in the short-term and very well in the long-term. A visionary company doesn’t simply balance between idealism and profitability; it seeks to be highly idealistic and highly profitable. A visionary company doesn’t simply balance between preserving a tightly held core ideology and stimulating vigorous change and movement; it does both to an extreme. In short, a highly visionary company doesn’t want to blend yin and yang into a gray, indistinguishable circle that is neither highly yin nor highly yang; it aims to be distinctly yin and distinctly yang—both at the same time, all the time.
Irrational? Perhaps. Rare? Yes. Difficult? Absolutely. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is exactly what the visionary companies are able to do.
So the Tyranny of the OR is forcing yourself to believe that certain things cannot be simultaneously pursued. Forcing your model of a complex, beautiful and nuanced reality into two dimensional, diametric space.
Can you think of examples where you do this in your life? I certainly can, here are some examples right from the top of my head that I have thought in the past:
- Either I have time for myself, OR I have time with my family.
- Either I have time for recreation, OR I have time for self-development.
- Either I am sceptical, OR open-minded.
But many of these are unfair and inaccurate reflections on reality.
To repeat the earlier quote within the Jim Collins excerpt: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The solution to the “Tyranny of the OR” is the “Genius of the AND”, the ability to embrace things that are seemingly paradoxical. The ability to embrace both extremes. Here are those examples reversed:
I can find a way to…
- Have time for myself AND have time with my family
- Have time for recreation AND have time for self-development
- Be sceptical AND open-minded. (See this quote)
This point of view is much more liberating! I am not constrained to diametric and dichotomous thinking…
But then… What about my absolutes? I love my absolutes!
So wait now… if seemingly contradictory things can both be true at the same time, then what happens to extremes? What happens to absolutes?
Well, embracing “The Genius of the AND”, the right thing to say is “Absolutes have their place sometimes, AND they don’t have a place other times”.
The universe does contain certain absolute principles. In fact it is because of the physical properties of reality that the avoidance of cognitive dissonance evolved to be such an effective mechanism to aid good decision making.
Returning to my earlier example, either there is sufficient water in the watering hole (and I am sufficiently thirsty among other variables) to warrant deciding to go there, or there isn’t, and so on: Those are either / or scenarios where either / or makes sense. Gravity is an absolute, it is a law. Either gravity is real (which it is) or it is not, there is no in-between. Thermodynamics is a law. Cause always precedes effect. I am human. These are absolutes. By our definition of life, I am alive at this very moment, this is an absolute.
This further reinforces that we have a brain well equipped to handle physical realities (Is there water in the watering hole? Should I go to sleep now, is there food there? etc.), all of which are more two or three dimensional (and much more absolute in nature) and help us to survive, which has been “nudged” if you will, to embrace, understand and deal with the highly abstracted society we’ve created.
Yet another example of how the brain has adapted to a very different reality, yet maintains artefacts or weaknesses from the past.
Now that the principle is clear, here are some examples and afterthoughts:
Example 1: “If you’re not with me, then you are my enemy” — Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars
This is a scene from the third Star Wars movie, Anakin Skywalker has gone “to the dark side” and is confronted with Obi Wan Kenobi. Upon realising his lack of support, Anakin says this classic phrase: “If you’re not with me, then you are my enemy”. Here is the scene below:
This is a canonical example of “The Tyranny of the OR” — Either you are with me, or you are my enemy. But we all know that reality is far more nuanced than that. (As Obi Wan then points out: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”) — in theory he could be:
- With Anakin
- An enemy of Anakin
- Neutral towards Anakin
- Unaware of Anakin or his cause
- Slightly supportive of Anakin but unwilling to take up arms in active support
- A defector of Anakin’s who is looking for refuge
- Simply undecided about his positioning with regards to Anakin and his cause
… And any number of highly complex combinations or relationships, other than plain ally or enemy.
Example 2: “Think Win-Win” from the 7 habits of highly effective people
In the 7 habits of highly effective people Steven Covey talks about the principle: “Think win-win”, which is a paradigm of thought that we should always try our best to find situations in which all parties in a scenario win.
In simple terms: Party A wins AND Party B wins — “The Genius of the AND”.
Often we approach life in a “The Tyrany of the OR” perspective when it comes to winning. Either India will win or Pakistan will win at the cricket match. In fact this is the way most sports are designed; there are winners and losers.
But it’s entirely possible for both India and Pakistan to win, if we change our dimension of thought. What if BOTH India and Pakistan put in their best efforts into the game and sure, one team wins on a technical level, but they both win in the realm of personal satisfaction and happiness with their overall performance. “Technically we lost the game, but we achieved a level of play we’ve never achieved before, therefore we win”.
Approaching life with the idea in mind that we seek out “winning” for all parties is truly a more exalted perspective.
Example 3: You can have your cake AND eat it
Although I’m sure its not possible to always have your cake and eat it, it certainly is possible in some circumstances, and we shouldn’t not try to just because we believe it’s impossible.
Example 4: A great sense of humour AND a great sense of solemnity
This is one that’s been on my mind for many years — having a personality that embraces both extremes of both a great sense of humour and a great sense of reverence or solemnity, all at the appropriate times.
Example 5: Law AND Freedom
Anyone who lives in a modern society (and isn’t about to go to prison) understands the seemingly paradoxical reality: Laws keep us free. Because we obey laws and respect them in our society, we are then granted greater freedom to come and go as we please within the constraints of the system. Law AND Freedom.
Now go… Be a Genius of the AND!