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A nuanced approach to understanding badness

Image generated using Midjourney

How do you feel when you find out a friend is lying to protect someone's feelings? Or when protesters damage public buildings to draw attention to an important issue?

We often rush to categorize situations into binary dichotomies (such as "good" and "bad"). But with complex situations, nuanced thinking is usually a better approach.

Nuanced thinking involves resisting these binaries and instead thinking in "degrees" (e.g., "a little bit bad", "somewhat bad", "very bad", etc.) or factors (e.g., "it's good in this one way but bad in this other way"). To make the value of nuanced thinking more concrete, consider these two situations:

  • Alan cuts in line at the supermarket, causing other people to wait longer.

  • Bob steals a large amount of money from a charitable organization that provides critical aid to the needy.

We can agree that these are both bad actions. But the level of this badness ranges from a minor offense (cutting in line) to a serious one (stealing from a charity). A simple label "bad" obscures the differences between Alan's and Bob's actions.

By switching from the simple label "bad" to instead thinking in "degrees" we get a much more accurate view of the situation.

Simplifying situations into simple binary categories (such as "good" vs. "bad") can have serious negative effects. For instance, conflating those who do something really bad with those who do something slightly bad unfairly punishes the second group too harshly (who may never mess up that badly again), and it makes genuinely really bad people seem much less bad than they actually are.

Almost everyone will do things that are a little bad at least every once in a while - but very few people will do something extremely bad - it's important to hold enough nuance to tell these cases apart! It's all too common to see people calling their political out-group "nazis"- what then are you going to call actual nazis?

If you're interested in digging deeper into the topic of nuanced thinking, you might enjoy our article about the three types of binary thinking.

These free, interactive tools are also great ways to help make your thinking more nuanced and precise:

Can You Detect Weak Arguments?

Find out how well you can spot misleading rhetoric and recognize your own bias using real-world examples.

The Common Misconceptions Test

Separate fact from B.S. in this fun quiz that asks you to identify the misconceptions among 30 common beliefs.

Calibrate Your Judgment

This free program contains thousands of question sets to help you become adept at making well-calibrated judgments. It also tracks your progress over time so you can see how you improve!

We hope you like these tools! To finish, we leave you with a quote about nuanced thinking that you might find inspiring.

"Nuanced thinking embraces complexity, transcends polarization, and navigates the subtleties of truth."

Shane Parrish


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