Absolutist Thinking, Human Nature, Ideas, Life, Living, Probabilistic Thinking, Thinking

Thinking in Absolutes vs. Thinking in Probabilities

SUMMARY:  There seem to be two basic ways of thinking.  That is, thinking in absolutist terms or thinking in probabilistic terms.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps wisdom consists in knowing when to use one or the other.

(About a 5 minute read)

When I became a fire fighter, I had to change some deeply ingrained ways of thinking.  For instance, growing up, I had thought largely in terms of absolutes.  Something either was or it was not the case.  My teachers were either good or they were bad.  An idea was either true or it was false.  A classmate was either nice or he or she was not.

Yet, few things are absolutely certain in a fire, and absolutely counting on something is a good way to get yourself — or your fellow fire fighters — injured or killed.  In fact, fire fighting requires realism perhaps more than anything else — including courage.  And realism often enough boils down to thinking in terms of the odds something will or will not happen.

That is, realism requires you to largely think in terms of probabilities.  The man in front of you on the hose line is not going to advance.  He is likely to advance.  The nine foot high wall of flames in front of you is not going to be knocked down by your stream of water.  It might be knocked down.  The room is not safe to enter.  It is possibly safe.

Least you now think there is no place for absolutes in fire fighting, there still are. There are many rules that should never be broken — at least not broken without very good reason to do so.  For instance, you should never open a door without testing the handle to see if it’s hot.  If it’s hot, there is very likely fire immediately on the other side of the door.  But despite the many absolutes, fire fighting does teach you to think in terms of probabilities.  Or at least, that’s what it did for me.

But it was only years later, when I got into business for myself, that I learned to generalize probabilistic thinking to nearly everything in life.  At one point, so many strange things were happening — both in my business and in my private life — that I simply couldn’t cope with them all without thinking of them largely in terms of probabilities.

My first boss used to love telling the age-old joke, “Nothing is certain in life but death and taxes”.  Although it might not seem like a large jump, it is extraordinarily difficult at first to go from thinking, “My wife is faithful”, to “My wife is very unlikely to cheat on me.”

Most of us, I suspect, would prefer to be justifiably convinced of the former, rather than justifiably convinced of the latter.  But I now believe that the deeper you look into life, the more you must — if you’re honest with yourself — recognize that nearly everything is uncertain.

There was once a study made of the professional writings of philosophers, theologians, and scientists.  The philosophers and theologians tended to express their ideas using absolute terms like “always” and “never”, while scientists tended to express their ideas using probabilistic terms like “seldom”, “sometimes”, and “often”.

Interestingly enough, children below the age of 13 or 14 are generally incapable of thinking of people as mixes of good and bad.  Instead, they think of people as either all good or all bad.  The reason, apparently, is that their brains are not yet fully wired for probabilistic thought.

What is true of children is also true of people with certain disorders.  A person with Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, can see someone as all good, or as all bad, and can even switch from seeing the same person as all good to seeing them as all bad (or vice versa), but he or she cannot see a person as a mix of good and bad — at least, not in the sense of responding to them as such.

Absolutist thinking has the advantage of comporting well with many kinds of logic and much mathematics. Good rules of action can often be formulated in absolute terms.  And absolutist thinking also has the advantage of impressing people as confident and decisive.

On the other hand, probabilistic thinking seems to have the advantage of generally being more realistic — especially in terms of modeling reality.  Rules — like never open a door in a fire without testing the handle — can be excellent guides to action, but absolutist thinking often fails us when we try to be as realistic about the very nature of reality as possible.

Jon isn’t kind or unkind, he is more likely to be kind than unkind.  Independents who voted Democratic in the last election are more likely to vote Democratic in the coming election than those Independents who voted Republican.  Dismantling the Glass-Steagall Act will not inevitably create another recession, but it will increase the likelihood of a crisis in the banking and financial services sector leading to another recession.

Probabilistic thinking also seems to have the advantage of allowing for greater flexibility in meeting fluid circumstances.  I’ll probably meet this period’s payroll out of revenue, but given the odds Smith and Associates won’t pay on time, I should check to see if the bank will loan the money to me should I need it.  There’s a sixty percent chance of rain, so I’d best take my umbrella with me today.

Both absolutist and probabilistic thinking have their advantages and disadvantages.  Wisdom may well consist in knowing which to use — or how to combine them — to best achieve a desired goal.

Questions? Comments?

4 thoughts on “Thinking in Absolutes vs. Thinking in Probabilities”

  1. Another ‘field’ to which “Absolutes vs. Probabilities” could be applied is religion. For example, to hold that the bible is the word of God is a matter of faith, not an “absolute.” I don’t know that one could even consider such faith a probability (99% probable? 75% probable? 50% probable?). This would lead me to suggest that some things are better thought of as possibilities rather than probabilities….though I doubt that religious dogmatists would agree.


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