(with cartoons)

There is and always has been a way to know whether something new is true. We ask our self: "Does it fit what I already know?" The answer must be "yes" for the new subject to be true.

This is the common and workable method we all use to ascertain the truth. It is the same one that we use for words in our language.

We hear someone use a word in the wrong context or with the wrong pronunciation and we know it. The dictionary is largely irrelevant. If it sounds wrong, it is wrong.

Conversely, most right structures and right pronunciations are never noticed. When we are asked if something is "right", we give it a taste- and-feel test and if it fits all we know, then it is "right".

New structures and new words are slowly accepted if the source, context and experimentation (testing it out) with other people are acceptable. The words "doppleganger" and "schadenfreude" have gained currency in English this way in the past few decades, as has the Apple Corp. usage in advertising of "think different".

What I am about to introduce to you is quite new, but I think that the tools we use for assimilating new words will work for these new concepts. Given a little time to live with them, you will find them comfortable.

The first dichotomy I found and the model for all the others is spontaneous/not spontaneous.

With a friend, in the mid 1970's, we developed the idea of burning a truck load of discarded xmas trees on the beach on a weekend evening. To avoid starting a fire in the nearby homes, I decided that we would have to check the weather on the day of the burn, then invite all the guests by phone. Usually several hundred people were phoned on the morning of the burn. Forty to fifty excited people came every year. The beach bonfire, a few weeks after xmas, has since become a staple of San Francisco life. It even grew into the institution known as Burning Man.

What I noticed after several years of putting on this event was that the same people who could come on short notice (a few hours) were always the same people and everyone else always begged to be kept on the list and called again in the future.

Regardless of the list we were phoning -- mine, a friend's, a relative's, a neighbor's -- the same thing was always true. The people who would come on short notice were the same year after year, and so were the people who begged to be invited next year.

This was my first dichotomy. Some people can act spontaneously, some people can't, and virtually everybody is in one category or the other. (Click for cartoon)

So what?

A "dichotomy", as I am using the word, is a powerful way to divide a population. It is a division that meets the highest scientific criterion: It is replicable. If you have a real dichotomy, you can do it again and again and always get the same population divided into the same groups.

For an experiment to be replicable it must be correctly connected to the stimulus. (In the case of spontaneous/not spontaneous, the presentation of an action opportunity on short notice must always result in the same groups of people who can come and who can't.) It should be rigorous. There shouldn't be people in the middle who can come sometimes and can't other times. My observation is that people either are able to act spontaneously most of the time, or they aren't. Of course, spontaneous people can make plans that they won't revise. But the converse is not true. Not-spontaneous people will only revise their plans due to hardship.

Again, so what?

The social sciences don't have much in the way of human analysis that meets the scientific criterion of replicability. Most of the time social sciences get a strong correlation or an impressive factor analysis (similar math concepts underlie both correlation and factor analysis) that can be duplicated, but the cause is poorly understood and can't be extended to other experiments or the replication isn't very reliable.

We are in the earliest stages of social science. Someday we will have observatories of humans, like astronomical observatories, observers on every block who will record all the comings and goings on their block, year in and year out. That will create masses of useful data.

When such data becomes available, it will turn out that "dichotomies" are the useful tools that will be tested to build a useful science. Real dichotomies will be easily evaluated, in the future, when we have large amounts of reliable data.

The current notion of dichotomies has a very negative connotation. It is associated with ignorance. When people see something as black or white it is invariably wrong. "My husband can't do anything right", "Kids who eat sugar become hyper", "Native Americans never pay their rent on time", etc.

The dichotomies we are dealing with here are different. They may be the result of ignorance and prejudice, but they are empirically testable.


Eight other dichotomies that I have found:


Shy/not shy

Simple liver/not into simple living

Gambler/not a gambler

God/no god

Comfortable with ambiguity/not comfortable

Like sex/Disinterested in sex

Travel baggage is: light/heavy

Work for a cause/won't


Each of these dichotomies may require an explanation before you can recognize them as deep and rigorous categories with virtually no people who are in between.

Before we proceed, let me offer the caveat that I am talking about Americans. I don't know other peoples.

Shy/not shy. A shy person can walk into a party of people with a similar occupational background where he or she doesn't see anyone they know, go get some food and stand near a wall and not talk to anyone until someone arrives who he or she knows. Minutes or hours. If no one arrives, he or she leaves without talking to anyone.

Many people can imagine common situations where they are shy. And shy people can be comfortable around friends. But shyness as a full-blown attribute is always true for a shy person; it only subsides among intimates.

I don't think anyone who is not constitutionally shy can conceive of the emotional and world view that leads to a shy person's behavior.

We all claim to be very tolerant and understanding people and I'm glad we claim it. But it isn't true. Ask a shy person if non-shy people can understand their feelings and the answer will be "no". (cartoon)

Simple Livers are people who see no reason to acquire possessions. They minimize the possessions they have and rarely see a need for more. They can be in an environment of abundant free goods and not take any. They can have an abundance of money or not, it is not relevant to their lack of desire to acquire possessions.

Most people cannot conceive of this view of the world if they don't already have this perspective. The person who wishes they were a simple liver, is not in the middle. They are not simple livers, they are just wishing.

People with no possessions of value are not automatically simple livers; most of us have seen street people with shopping carts filled to overflowing with their possessions which appear to be garbage. (cartoon)

Gambler, not gambler. This proposition doesn't need much defense. When we are talking about betting money in games of chance, slot machines, blackjack, craps, for hours on end, most people know that this dichotomy is substantive and rigorous. I've never met anyone who was in-between. Non-gamblers can make no sense of the desire for casino-type gambling. (cartoon)

Similarly, people who believe in a God or Gods, don't ever seem to overlap with people who clearly don't believe in god, gods or a higher power or an ultimate purpose. At least as adults.

People who don't believe in a God or Gods usually say they don't even wish they did. In the United States this "no-god" group is not large and they are concentrated in urban areas.

I have met Methodist ministers who feel that they understand the people who have no need for God or Gods or higher powers or ultimate truths, but I actually, in my gut, don't believe they do understand them. Vice versa is true. I don't think no-god people can conceive of the way the world looks to people who believe in God. (cartoon)

The next dichotomy "Comfortable with ambiguity/not comfortable" would appear to be very similar to the God/no-god dichotomy. The similarity is only apparent. I personally know people who belong to the believe in God category and are comfortable with ambiguity. Conversely I know a few people who don't have any god or gods and are not comfortable with ambiguity. The apparent overlap is not real, based on my experience.

A person who is comfortable with ambiguity needs to be described since many people don't immediately recognize this category.

Medical professionals are daily confronted with ambiguity. Examinations of cells through a microscope yields valuable information, but it is often not conclusive. Tests that have high schedules of alpha and beta errors are common, one is the error that a false positive may show up the other is that a true positive may not be detected. Some people are comfortable giving medical prognosis and diagnosis in this environment, even in matters of life and death. These are people who are comfortable with ambiguity.

The same can be true of a criminal lawyer, defense or prosecution. The entire case needs to be presented to a judge or jury. Some parts of the case are strong, some are weak, sometimes the material holds together, sometimes it doesn't, but the best package is indeterminate. Some people are comfortable with this mode of life. They are comfortable with ambiguity. Most people are not comfortable with ambiguity. (cartoon)

There are many degrees of interest in sex from the extreme and intense example of teenage male to the comic example of a married couple having reduced sex to several times a year. But there are people who have no interest in sex, no apparent sex drive. This appears to me to be a dichotomy.

It is hard for either group to understand the other. The problem with this dichotomy is that some people, particularly men, feel, after orgasm when they have no immediate interest in sex, that they can understand people who never have an interest in sex. Not true. The framework of the mind that evaluates people in our environment in terms of their sexual appeal to us, never gets turned off for those who have this mental evaluation mechanism. People who don't have this mechanism can not conceive it. (cartoon)

On a trip of any length, you will notice that some people carry very little baggage, while most others carry a lot of baggage. Those with light baggage can't understand what is so vital to travel that it would justified the effort and turmoil of carrying weight on a trip. Those with a lot of baggage can't understand how anyone could travel without anticipating the many obvious unexpected demands of travel. What neither side can understand is that the length of the period of travel, a weekend, a month or three months seems to have no effect on the amount of baggage. (cartoon)

Many people in America "work for a cause" that they believe in. This description applies to many people who work in the helping professions: nurses, paramedics and firepeople. It describes many people who work for non-profits in the environment, social activism, public interest law. What distinguishes these people from all other people is that in most cases they sacrifice earnings in order to pursue their chosen work.

I am not absolutely sure of this dichotomy because there are people who have regular jobs and do volunteer work, then later in life when they feel they have less need for security they work full time for a cause.

There are many people who don't work for a cause who purport to understand those who do. From my experience this appears to be a dichotomy, but I am not sure. (cartoon)


In summary, I think that there exists a domain of dichotomies that separate people into two measurable, distinct and testable categories. These dichotomies are not the result of ignorance or prejudice, but represent genuine and useful distinctions in our population. I have suggested eight such dichotomies that I believe, from personal experience to be subject to rigorous testing. I hope this opens a field of useful and constructive social analysis.


Michael Phillips, June. 2000

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