Only a Sith Deals in Absolutes: A Psychological Perspective

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes"

Despite its fictional nature, the above Star Wars quote provides valuable advice. The Sith in Star Wars are generally the bad guys and dealing in absolutes is not a good thing to do. Many people in our universe do tend to deal in an absolute type of thinking. In the minds of many, people are either with them or against them. Someone is a good person or a bad person. However, this kind of thinking can often be problematic. By dealing in absolutes, you can alienate people who may agree with you 99% of the time. This is seen in friendships, business, and different movements. Someone may want to work with someone regarding 99% of a friendship or relationship or business partnership, but one little snag comes up and a person is painted as a bad person or not ‘with’ them. Everyone messes up, but jumping to the conclusion that a person is bad based off one or two mishaps is not only simple minded, it is also maladaptive. Like I said before, you are alienating people you may otherwise have wonderful and meaningful relationships. 

I believe people engage in this kind of behavior for a variety of reasons. Let us first assume that a person thinking this way does not have any sort of psychological illnesses such as borderline personality disorder which may increase absolute type thinking. One reason I think people deal in absolutes is that it simply takes less cognitive effort to place a person in one category or another and not on a spectrum. Our brains have developed to look for patterns and classify things so it is easy to place a person in one category or another and not critically evaluate their behavior.  I also believe that the fundamental attribution error plays a large role in this kind of thinking. The fundamental attribution error is a famous cognitive bias in psychological literature and is an error many people routinely make. It can be described as when people overestimate one’s personality as the cause of another person’s behavior and underestimate the effect of the environment and extenuating circumstances in their behavior. Thus, when dealing with absolutes, it is easier to think that one’s personality is flawed and the environment and other contributing factors have little to do with one’s behavior (again, less cognitive effort). 

Another reason people may engage in absolute kind of thinking is to prevent type 1 errors. Type 1 errors are when we believe there is an effect when there really is not one (i.e. a particular medicine helped cure someone when it actually had nothing to do with it. Thus, by thinking a person is good when they are really not would be a false positive (type 1 error). It can be problematic to give someone another chance when they may hurt us again so it may best to assume that they are always bad. By dealing in absolutes it is difficult to achieve a type 1 error as you label a person as absolutely bad. By doing this, you remove any chance of them providing conflicting evidence of them being good which would result in a type 1 error. 

Again, our brains are built to look for patterns and minimize cognitive effort which makes us more likely to engage in such kinds of thinking. The important thing to realize is that we have self-awareness and can be aware of our thoughts. We can know when we are engaging in such kinds of maladaptive thinking. When someone does something bad, negative emotions can fuel this kind of thinking, but we can combat it by trying to take a step back and ask ourselves questions such as “Is this an isolated incident or is there a pattern of bad behavior here?” “What sort of environmental components could have contributed to this behavior?” “Should I be more flexible in how I view this person? 

Yes, sometimes it is beneficial to just be done with a certain person if they keep causing you stress, however; sometimes it is worth giving that person one or several more chances. Not only do your perceptions of someone may not represent the whole person accurately, but people do change. People can be normally good, but can make mistakes and learn from them. People can engage in poor behavior when put in a difficult environment. People are complex and they are hard to predict. By dealing in absolutes, you may push someone away undeservingly before you think they will hurt you, but lose an important relationship in your life. 

I would like more people to take a few moments to reflect on their thoughts before they deal in an absolute. It might very well be the right call sometimes, but other times it can be a poor decision as they just threw away a great friendship, relationship, or business partner all because they gave into their cognitive biases. It is easier to deal in absolutes because of less cognitive effort, avoiding type 1 errors, and our proneness to the fundamental attribution error, but it doesn’t mean we have to think this way. We can be aware of our thinking patterns and carefully make decisions which can be best for us in the long term, not what feels good now. With awareness and a concerted effort we can avoid making choices that might ultimately be maladaptive. Our brain may be wired to process our environment a certain way, but that doesn’t mean we are required deal in absolutes.