Binary Thinking: A Brain Virus

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Authored by: Roger Pearman

Binary thinking is a brain virus when it comes to judging typical human behavior. A good deal of life around us shows that there are very few things that are “either/or” and most things occur on a continuum. I’m sure if we made a list of behaviors we see on a daily basis, we would agree that these occur on a continuum—some people show a little, some people show as much as others, and some people show a good deal more than most people. When we get “scores” from assessments, we fall into the trap of thinking the score is the measure. In fact, as every assessment or test developer knows, scores are estimations and there is a range—a degree of error—in which a true score falls. I used to take issue with our local school officials for using hard cut-off scores in program placements because of the measurement error in assessments being used. In everyday working life, when someone sells a self-report assessment to a company and they say the cut-off score is X for predicting future behavior, they are making a conjecture not based in science. In fact, a multi-rater tool that is science-based is the best data for future predictions, depending on what is being observed.

Binary Thinking: A Brain Virus

This makes professional life more complicated in that discernment of meaning requires more focus, more data, and more analysis. But that means our knowledge and experience are being put to effective use when we take multiple data points to find trends and patterns, and likely probabilities. And yes, there is a point when we have enough information to make decisions and recommendations, but not on one single datapoint. In short, an assessment score is not either true or false; it is an estimation that may indicate useful patterns of information.

Self-report assessments are especially important for thinking about the results in more complex ways. A self-report assessment is giving you information about how the person sees himself or herself in relation to some normative sample. So, if there are 5 questions about empathy and I rate myself a 4 on each, my score is 20. It may turn on that a 20 is a standard deviation above what most people say about themselves, so I’ve reported myself as more empathetic than most report themselves. Notice I didn’t say I was more empathetic– I said I reported myself as more empathetic. That is useful to know but is not definitive. With the use of a 360 tool which asks questions about how I demonstrate empathy, we get a picture of what others experience– which may in fact be that they don’t see much empathy at all!

What to do?

An effective interpreter knows that there is insight in both self-reports and 360 reports. The task is to help the individual understand that what he or she thinks about themselves (an expression of intention) isn’t exactly what others experience (the impact of behavior). Turning this insight into consideration of how to make the intention realized in their working relationships is often a turning point in the individual’s life.

We would do ourselves and our clients a service by seeing data from assessments as snapshots on a continuum that provide some hypotheses about behavior. And at the end of the data gathering, our goal is to help the individual identify specifically what needs to be the focus of development—which isn’t about changing a score.

None of this effort can be approached effectively with a binary approach, and if done in this manner, a good deal of harm to others is likely and probable.

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