Nuanced thinking is necessary to understand the world and act rationally in it.
To understand what nuanced thinking is, we can first look at its opposite: binary thinking. Binary thinking reduces a complicated issue to two extremes. Some examples are:
- “You’re either with me, or you’re my enemy.”
- “If you don’t agree with my plan, then you clearly aren’t interested in fixing the problem it addresses.” (straw man fallacy)
- “If the soda machines are removed, then our company will become a soulless megacorp.” (slippery slope fallacy)
- “There are two types of people in this world …”
- “You aren’t an expert on this, so I won’t listen to anything you have to say.”
Each of these statements destroys nuance. They present only two possibilities, and anything in between is crammed into one of two extremes so that it can be quickly accepted or dismissed. The problem with this thinking is that it creates a distorted view of reality. Nuance actually matters, and it can make all the difference in making correct decisions.
Unfortunately, binary thinking is all too common. The reason for this is that nuance is dangerous. Too much nuance can make an issue hard to understand or communicate, so we remove it. This not only helps us persuade other people, but also ourselves. It is comfortable for us to avoid even considering the possibility that we’re wrong. With binary thinking, there are only two possibilities: my opinion, and an absurd alternative. Who would ever want to pick the absurd alternative? Since we’re not doing that, we have to go with my approach. QED.
Nuanced thinking is the opposite of binary thinking. Instead of reducing the world to two possibilities, we expand it to include a spectrum of ideas, each with its own benefits and tradeoffs.
Each of the binary statements above can be translated into nuanced statements:
- “What things do we have in common?”
- “I see that you don’t agree with my plan. How can I improve it?”
- “I like having a soda machine, I’m not sure you understand how much value it brings. How much does it cost to operate?”
- “Everyone is unique.”
- “I hear what you are saying, but an expert told me the opposite. What perspective are you bringing that I don’t see yet?”
Each statement above not only injects humility, but also opens up a broader range of possibilities. Instead of grouping all people into only experts and non-experts for example, we accept that each person has their own perspective, and can bring something to the table, but still there are some people whose experience is more relevant than others.
The straw man fallacy reduces the world to only my opinion and a bizarre distortion of the opposition. This can be avoided by honestly representing the opinions of others (often called a steel man), and when we do that we will see many other honest alternatives to our own view.
The slippery slope fallacy presents only my opinion, and a lot of dangerous ideas that will all end up creating the same disaster at the end of the day. This rejects the possibility that we could arrive at a stable point in between (this is sometimes the result of what psychologists call catastrophizing). We can avoid this by recognizing that most slopes actually don’t slip, and that even if a flurry of changes does proceed, a stable point is almost always reached that is far short of the disaster envisioned
The real world is crafted in nuance, and its currency is cost and benefit. I talk about this next.
Cost and Benefit
We now know not to reduce the world to only right and wrong. It’s still important to know though: just how right is something?
We can do this by understanding costs and benefits.
Costs make something more wrong. If we think about a company soda machine for example, costs include the physical cost of filling it with syrup, ordering the syrup, logistics of filling it regularly and fixing it when it breaks down, powering it with electricity, the physical space it takes up in company HQ, cleaning up spilled soda, disposing of soda bottles, and lost productivity from time spent refilling soda.
There are also benefits. Those include the morale boost of having a soda machine and productivity gained from employees not having to go elsewhere to get something to drink.
When we make decisions, we have to consider both the costs and the benefits. This is easy when we think about something as boring as a soda machine, but if we think about complicated issues in business and politics, it is very easy to look at only the costs or the benefits of something. That is reductionist. It is binary thinking. It is destruction of nuance.
Some examples of considering only the costs or the benefits, and not both:
- “GIMP is free so there’s no reason to pay for Photoshop.”
- “That’s a bad idea because it will reduce customer retention.”
We can fix these statements by considering the other side too:
- “Everything I need to do can be done okay in GIMP; Photoshop is better but it’s not worth that price for me.”
- “That idea will increase revenue, but it will reduce customer retention by 20%, so we will lose money in the long run.”
Once we start considering both cost and benefit, we can use these as tools for deciding what to do. The net value of something is the benefits minus the costs:
Net Value = Benefits – Costs
If our costs and benefits are in dollar values, this is easy to calculate. If it’s more subjective then we are going to have to make the decision subjectively, and that’s fine. What is important is that we consider all of the major costs and benefits, weighing them appropriately. If we decide not to do something, we can ask: how can this idea be changed to either increase the benefits or decrease the costs?
When we do this, we brush up aginst the force of friction.
Friction is the force that slows things down on the journey from 0 to 1 in our interesting, nuanced world.
Let’s go back to the soda machine. We originally imagined two extremes:
- Extreme A: The company has a soda machine, and is a witty culture of A-player entrepreneurs who keep on winning
- Extreme B: The company does not have a soda machine, and is soulless cubical farm full of people who just phone it in
Since the real world is much more nuanced than that, we know that there is a spectrum of possible states of the company. The extremes A and B are still possible, but there is a state C where the company doesn’t have a soda machine, people are sad, and life goes on.
If we remove the soda machine, the company moves further away from Extreme A and closer to Extreme B. We can envision this like so:
The slippery slope fallacy will tell us that since management removed the soda machine, next they will remove the snacks, then the free massages, then replace the sitting areas with desks, and the desks with cubicles, and on and on.
What prevents this from happening is friction.
In the real world, actions have consequences. Management notices that removing the soda machine decreases morale, and knows that adding cubicles will decrease it further, so they don’t. Even if they do, there is a point where the slope stops slipping, and that almost always happens before the catastrophe that we might imagine. This is friction at work.
We can see it at work in many other cases too. For example, in the “with me or against me” dichotomy, friction is what keeps both parties’ interests relatively aligned with each other. In a way, friction is the voice of reason. It is the thing that keeps reality in bounds, preventing the catastrophes we imagine from being realized.
It’s also a useful tool when managing risk, but that is a topic for another day.
Nuance is important. It helps us see the infinite range of possibilities that are available in the real world. Once we see it, we start to discover a beautiful, diverse range of options that weren’t there before. It helps us understand each other and work to find commonalities.
If I divide the world evenly into two types of people, then 50% of the world are my friends, and 50% are my enemies. If I instead see others for who they are, then I have something in common with everyone.
This is nuance, and if we all start seeing it, then the most bitter disagreements will turn out to be simply battles of egos and unfortunate misunderstandings.