All or nothing

Most things in the world around us are not “extreme”. There is a good chance that the coffee or tea that one drinks every day at the train station does not taste “extremely good” or “extremely bad”. Rather, it is more likely to taste somewhere in between the two extremes. Similarly, one’s colleagues in the office are probably not “extremely friendly” or “extremely unfriendly”, but more likely to be somewhere in between.

Unfortunately, one’s mind can make the mistake of only thinking in extremes, rather than seeing things in a more realistic “in-between way”. Psychologists have named this mind mistake, where one’s mind thinks in extremes, as the “all or nothing” mistake. The short examples of the “all or nothing” mind mistake given below will show you how it can cause harm.


Example 1

Imagine that you have a good friend called Sally. She has been a true friend to you for many years, sharing both your happiness and troubles. Sally has always gone out of her way to be helpful to you whenever you were in need.

Let us now imagine that today is your birthday and that Sally, perhaps because she was busy, forgot to wish you. Now let us suppose that your mind makes the “all or nothing” mind mistake. Your mind will make you think, “Sally is a really terrible person who does not care about me at all. How could she forget my birthday, when she knows I like people to wish me? She is completely useless, etc….” The “all or nothing” mind mistake makes you think only in extremes, making you ignore the good Sally has done over the years, and instead, let this one error on her part, make you think she is “all bad”.

In reality, while it was “bad” for Sally to have forgotten your birthday, it was only one “bad” thing among the many more “good” things she did for you over the years. So instead of seeing Sally as “completely bad”, a better way would be is to see her as being “mostly good” and only “slightly bad”. As you have seen in this example, the “all or nothing” mind mistake can make one judge people unfairly.

Example 2

Nick goes to a restaurant and has a three-course meal. The starters taste fantastic, the main course is equally delicious, and even the dessert is super good. Then at the end, Nick orders a coffee. The waiter brings the coffee and as a special treat, also brings a biscuit to go with it. Nick finds the coffee to be excellent, but unfortunately discovers that the biscuit is a little spoiled.

At this point, let’s imagine that Nick’s mind makes the “all or nothing” mind mistake. This makes him focus only on the spoilt biscuit and completely forget that the other parts of the meal were fantastic. Nick complains about the biscuit for the rest of the evening, telling everyone how the meal was completely terrible.

In this example, you can see how, because of the “all or nothing” mind mistake, the restaurant was not judged fairly. This is not to say that the spoilt biscuit should have been ignored. Rather, it is about putting things in the correct perspective.


As you have seen in the above examples, the “all or nothing” mind mistake can make one make incorrect judgments. When you assess a person or situation, take a step back and check if you are truly seeing things in a “balanced way”, which means seeing both the good and the bad in everything.