The Binary Perspective: Our Love For Extremes

Watching the virulent reaction of the Nigerian Government to any form of critique made me realize how much we engage in binary thinking. Binary thinking is when we construct polarized relationships between one thing and another, in which the two things are seen as total opposites:  Good and Evil; Predators and Preys; Angels and Demons; Sun and Rain; Old and Young; God and Devil; Rude and Respectful. This habit of grouping things in starkly opposite groups is most possibly one ingrained in us for a good reason. Why? Back in the perilous early ages, most of the snap decisions our ancestors were forced to make had to be efficiently sorted out into binary pairs: predator or non-predator, ally or foe, food or non-food and so on. It was efficient as it helped our ancestors think on their feet and make snap decisions that possibly saved their lives.

Drawbacks of Binary Thinking

The drawbacks of binary perspective were never an issue until humans advanced cognitively and higher reasoning became more important. In current times of multipart relationships and an increasingly interconnected world, the use of complex thinking becomes more important than rapid gut instinct.

Oversimplification of Complexity

Yet, the instinct to make those quick extreme classifications lies underneath the surface. And they exhibit themselves more frequently in countries that struggle for basic needs such as food and security. A struggle for the basics draws out the basic mindset. So with a 61% poverty rate, it’s easy to understand why such a mindset is widespread in Nigeria. Here’s a few we make: The North is either full of Boko Haram members or freedom fighters; no average Northern citizens who just want a normal life. President Jonathan either has friends or has enemies; no concerned individual has a right to critique anyone in Government without an ulterior motive. Essentially, we classify every action as either good or bad and the context never matters. It creates a very limited perspective that prevents one from taking in the whole data along with the context. We reduce the complexities of life to a Hollywood/Nollywood script where the bad guys are ugly, loathsome, and vile, while the good guys are handsome, charismatic and pure.

Creation of Worse Classifications

Moreover, when we create neutral binary classifications, we run the risk of having negative sub-classifications creep in. In Nigeria, men and women: strong and weak. Igbo and Hausa: *insert your negative ethnic extreme biases here*. So what might start off as an innocuous attempt to simplify things might metamorphoses into something more sinister.

Lack of Creativity

Good decision makers have the ability to see between and past the lines: you can call this creativity. Binary thinking prevents one from seeing the myriad of choices that exists; instead, it limits one to their primary selection. In Nigeria, when policies fail to materialize any real results, we dump them in their entirety; when a simple modification or tweak might have been enough to actualize results. How can a nation have a long-term plan when each successive administration reviles that of the previous and has a new ‘agenda’ of its own?

Curtailing our Binary Perspective

First, to fight back against such binary mindset, we need to recognize the binaries that are imbibed in our processes. Second, when we come across such binaries, we need to actively search for a third option. Usually, finding the third makes it easy to see that there’s a whole lot more options/classification we fail to consider. Then, we’re less likely to vociferously hold on to our own opinions while vilifying contrary opinions. There’s two popular sides of a coin…and there’s the middle.


  • chidi

    It is prevalent in culture where incompetence and mediocrity is the order of the day, criticisms should spur leadership to attain and achieve, but in our own case, leadership is not performing yet don’t want to be criticized.

  • Rightly said, and it so good that this is coming at a time I am trying to xray the ministry of youth development as well as other youth development agencies (Governmental and non-Governmental). What is important in this realization is that bad intentions can yield good results if the plan towards the results are right. Just changing the intentions can make all the difference! A new Government needs not change the plans, all that is required is a change of intentions and follow-up strategy, a little modification is allright, but not a drastic overhaul.
    If this piece can be included to the welcome package of all successive administrators as soon as they assume office, i think Nigeria will experience progressive improvements.
    Well done!

  • The problem a lot of people have is doing away with the old and getting on with the new. A change of mindset is required but that requires leaving the comfort zone of familiarity regardless of how destructive or drawn back it is. That’s the problem a lot of people have. It’s why we see things in absolutes; no dynamic variations and that’s not healthy. There’s usually more than meets the eye. Coins might have just two sides, but there’s something in between both sides.
    That something is not good does not make it all together evil. That I say I don’t love someone doesn’t mean I hate them. That I criticize the government for its failures doesn’t mean I’m hating on them or looking for an offer from them so I can begin to sing their praises.
    I guess when we loose the binary/absolute mode of thinking we can truly press forward and forge better relationships.
    This was a great read Chuba. 🙂

  • Nice one chuba. The economic consequences of such perspective are part of our problems, not just corruption.
    Like the ‘parable of the shower’ portrayed, psychology change 1st, then the rest would fall in line.

  • This is a very incisive work. I totally agree with it. I dare say that it’s even passed through generations. Most of our parents never travelled beyond a 40 mile radius from where they were born. It reinforces ” the monsters beyond the hills” concept. Thus everything that was not familiar to them was plain evil. Be it religious or other cultural markers, they all looked at the others as bad or at best funny.
    I think our generation are more immuned to this folly. Some of us have grown up in cosmopolitan areas were we get exposed to different ways of living that we grow up to see things that our parents would do “over their dead body”as normal. So I think that apart from the personal solution that you have given an even more broader or (I daresay) effective solution would be to encourage a less gentrified society. It’s harder to do but more beneficial. The most advanced societies are usually the most cosmopolitan. New York, London, California, Alexandria of old, the old Benin and Lagos. The greatness in all of them is as a result of broad nature of their people. We need more of that in Nigeria.

    • Exactly. My exposure to different nationalities in an International school made me realize there was more to the ‘immutable Nigerian values and culture’. It made me realize that there are certainly several ways of seeing things. Cosmopolitian places usually have such an effect also. Moreover, such diversity has an added advantage of economic development:visibly clear in cosmopolitan areas. Thanks

  • Nuesity

    Extremes…Funny I had a similar thought-line :). Pretty good write-up though.