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Opinion: To be a better thinker, see the world in gray, not black and white

Thinking like a sociologist can help people reach better conclusions. Here’s how to start

Drflet, via Wikimedia Commons

People are often too sure for their own good. Much of this is driven by what sociologists call dichotomous thinking — the categorization of complex problems into simplistic either/or scenarios.

This kind of thinking abounds in a world driven by punditry and confirmation bias. Vaccinations are either perfect or useless. Gun control will solve America’s epidemic of violence or cannot stop it. Countries are either friends or foes. But thinking in black and white is problematic and is driving many of the social problems we are experiencing today.

Why are we often too sure for our own good? In many ways it’s understandable that people desire certainty in their lives. Social psychologists tell us that humans tend to take complex, nuanced phenomena and simplify them in ways that are easier to process and act upon. “In” groups provide us with social norms and mutual aid. “Out” groups are viewed as threatening.

Black-white thinking has become increasingly common in a world where many people get most, if not all, of their information from sources that confirm their preconceived notions. We often reside in echo chambers where we engage with others who think like we do. Party platforms become religious dogma. Screaming pundits become prophets. Thoughts and behaviors become ways to determine if you are “for us” or “against us.” This environment fosters black-white thinking and us-versus-them dynamics.

Dichotomous thinking is not just silly, it can be dangerous. Consider that the official Twitter account for the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee recently posted, then deleted, a tweet that said: “If boosters work, why don’t they work?” The idea behind this tweet is simple: Vaccination against COVID-19, including a booster shot, should prevent all infections against the disease. Otherwise, it is useless.

This tweet glosses over important complexities. Do breakthrough infections, hospitalizations and even deaths happen among vaccinated (and boosted) individuals? Yes. But that tells an incomplete story. Vaccinated individuals are far less likely to experience the ill effects of COVID-19 than their unvaccinated counterparts. In Utah in the past four weeks, the unvaccinated were 2.3 times more likely to get sick and 6.7 times more likely to be hospitalized than the vaccinated. “And health officials report unvaccinated Utahns face 15.2 times greater risk of death than vaccinated Utahns,” KSL NewsRadio reported.

Thus, vaccines do exactly what they are designed to do — prevent hospitalizations and deaths while protecting individuals and critical social infrastructure, such as our health care system. Do some individuals experience harm from vaccines? Yes. But the harm from infection by COVID-19 far outweighs vaccination’s potential side effects, most of which are minor.

Combating dichotomous thinking is not easy. But consider the circumstances of your own life. Simplicity and common sense probably do little to describe your personality, your opportunities and even some of your choices. Stories about personal lives are often complicated and nuanced. Yet, we desire straightforwardness within our society. We think that solutions to difficult problems, like poverty or challenges to family life, should be one-dimensional and easy. Instead, we should work hard to think more complexly. One way we can do this is to apply the tools of sociology and other social sciences into our interactions, choices and perspectives.

Sociologists identify trends within society using surveys, interviews and other scientific methodologies. Anyone can engage in these kinds of methods at an informal level by critically observing the world around them and looking at high-quality data that is readily available. For example, a cursory glance at COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death data provides clear evidence that vaccines are highly effective tools to blunt the worst effects of the pandemic.

After assessing the data, we explain observed trends, taking care to consider multiple possible causes. Consider, for example, the social determinants of health. This model postulates that one’s health is not merely the result of biology, but also results from social factors, including infrastructure (such as access to recreation and health care quality) and environmental conditions.

In thinking about multiple causes, the social sciences help individuals think probabilistically, to think about outcomes in terms of increased or decreased likelihoods. For example, marriage before the age of 25 leads to a higher risk of divorce than getting married at an older age. Of course, not all people who marry young will get divorced and getting married in your 30s is hardly a guarantee of success. Early marriage is also not the only risk factor for divorce. Thinking probabilistically is to use data-driven thinking about the various risks associated with negative outcomes, assess them and then act.

Sociologists also communicate our findings. Percentages, odds and other statistics can mask significant findings. An effective alternative is personalization. Sociologists and other social scientists often use case studies to help personalize findings from large, complex data. For example, I am vaccinated against COVID-19 not just for myself, but because I want to protect others in my life. I have a nephew who is severely immunocompromised. Another nephew is a baby who cannot yet be vaccinated. My parents have numerous health issues that could complicate their experiences with COVID-19. Moreover, I think about the people I go to church with, live around, interact with at work, not to mention the strangers I see out in public.

Finally, sociologists are prepared to be wrong, to be surprised by unexpected findings. For example, much of my work focuses on health and fathering behavior. In conducting research on fathers and depression, I expected to find similar outcomes in countries around the world, based on how loving, supportive and involved fathers are. My thinking was incorrect. Different countries provide different supports for fathers, and expectations about what dads should do vary widely. Thus, depression affects fathers in different countries differently. As individuals, we should allow room for surprise findings that do not fit with our ideological frames or preconceived notions.

Although we like simple explanations and solutions, they often provide little traction in real life. They can lead to significant problems like tribalism and extremism. They make it impossible for us to think about alternatives to our ideologies and solutions to individual and societal problems to move forward. We can all benefit from turning away from black-and-white thinking and making it our goal to see grey, to be a little more uncertain about the world. Ultimately, a sociological perspective can help do just that.

Kevin Shafer, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. The views reflected here do not necessarily represent those of BYU or its sponsoring church.