All or nothing thinking

Most things in the world around us are not “extreme”. Probably, the coffee or tea that you drink does not taste “extremely good” or “extremely bad”. Rather, it is more likely to taste somewhere in between extremely good and extremely bad. Similarly, your colleague in the office is probably not “extremely friendly” or “extremely unfriendly”, but more likely to be somewhere in between the two extremes. Unfortunately the human brain can, at times, have the tendency to only think in extremes, rather than seeing things in a more realistic “in between way”. Psychologists have named this kind of stupid thinking, where your brain thinks in extremes, as “all or nothing” thinking. All or nothing thinking distorts how you see the world and this can make you make wrong judgements and decisions.

Here are some short examples of how all or nothing thinking can be harmful:


Example 1

Imagine that you have a good friend called Sally. She has been a true friend to you for many years, sharing both your happiness and troubles. Her friendship was so close that she even once kept you at her home for months when you had lost your job.
Let us now imagine that today is your birthday and that Sally, perhaps because she was busy, forgot to wish you. Now let us suppose that your brain does “all or nothing” thinking. Your brain will think, “Sally is a really terrible person who does not care about me. How could she forget my birthday, when she knows I like people to wish me? She is useless … etc.” With all or nothing thinking, your brain ignores all the good Sally has done, and instead, the one mistake of not wishing you on your birthday makes your mind think that Sally is “all bad”. In reality, while it was wrong for Sally to have forgotten your birthday, it was only one “bad” thing among the many more “good” things she did for you over the years. So instead of seeing Sally as completely bad, a better way would have been to see her as being only “slightly bad”. As you see in this example, “all or nothing” thinking can make one judge people unfairly.


Example 2

Nick goes to a restaurant and has a three course meal. The starters taste fantastic, the main course is equally delicious, and even the dessert is super good. Then at the end, Nick orders a coffee. The waiter brings the coffee and as a special treat, also brings a biscuit to go with it. Nick finds the coffee to be excellent, but unfortunately discovers that the biscuit is a little spoiled.

At this point, let’s imagine that Nick’s brain starts to do “all or nothing” thinking. This makes him focus only on the spoilt biscuit and completely forget that the other parts of the meal were fantastic. Nick complains about the biscuit for the rest of the evening, and even tells his friends afterwards that the restaurant was terrible.
So in this example, you can see how, because of all or nothing thinking, the restaurant is not being judged fairly. This is not to say that the spoilt biscuit should be ignored. Rather, it is about putting things in the correct perspective.


As you have seen, “all or nothing” thinking can make one make incorrect judgements. Do you sometimes do “all or nothing” type of stupid thinking? Do you often think in extremes? If so, next time, try and take a step back and reassess things. Check if you are truly seeing things in a “fair way”, which means seeing both, the good and the bad in everything.