One-Dimensional Thinking

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One-Dimensional Thinking is a way of thinking that involves viewing something in terms of a single linear factor or scale. One-dimensional thinking can involve numbers, like a student's GPA, or a qualitative spectrum, like Liberal/Conservative in politics. One-dimensional thinking can become problematic or harmful when it is applied to things that are more complex and have multiple factors, or things that cannot be captured accurately on a simple scale.

Inappropriate one-dimensional thinking can contribute to clouded thinking, keeping people from clear thinking.


Examples of inappropriate uses of one-dimensional thinking include:

  • Intelligence - People can invent measurements like IQ in an attempt to capture certain aspects of intelligence. While these scales can be useful to a degree, it can be problematic if people begin to equate IQ or other linear quantities with intelligence, as there are many different aspects to intelligence, and many of them cannot be easily captured in individual, linear variables.
  • Academic Performance - GPA, grades, and test scores are usually defined on a linear scale, but it can be problematic to view a student's performance solely in terms of these factors, because they do not fully reflect either the student's level of knowledge or their degree of work or effort. This is true both because of confounding factors making these measures lack accuracy, like inconsistencies in grading or the difficulty level of classes, and because some aspects of academic performance may not be able to be captured by a linear scale at all.
  • Money - Money or finances can usually be measured by a single linear quantity, but it becomes problematic if people equate a single monetary variable with broader concepts, such as defining a person's success by their income or net worth, or even by defining the health of a business by its profit or assets, or the health of an economy by its GDP.

When is one-dimensional thinking appropriate?

In science and sometimes in business, one-dimensional thinking can be useful when it accurately describes reality. For example:

  • The temperature in a room
  • The amount of money in a bank account

It is important to be cautious though even with quantities that appear to be linear.

For example, a typical room, certain parts of the room may be warmer or colder than others. A cold-sensitive houseplant might die if placed near a drafty window, even if the average temperature in the room is warm enough for it. Similarly, a business might look at several decisions and choose ones that maximized their apparent financial gain, but hidden costs might cause this choice to be a poor decision in the long-term.

Problems with one-dimensional thinking

Focusing on the linear variable rather than the original goal

Many of the problems with one-dimensional thinking arise when people create a single, linear variable to measure something desirable and good, and then try to maximize that variable under the erroneous idea that they will then be improving whatever it was the variable was designed to measure.


  • Test Scores and Education - Test scores attempt to measure the knowledge or academic performance of students. When looked at on the level of a school as a whole, they may be used to assess or estimate the performance or success of a school. While there is nothing inherently wrong with using a test to assess a student's knowledge, it becomes problematic when people start focusing on the test scores themselves, rather than focusing on the learning and knowledge itself. This can be described as "teaching to the test".
  • GDP and Economic Policy - GDP is one measure of the extent of a money economy. It does not directly measure aspects of an economy that do not involve transfers of money. GDP is often used as a gross estimate of prosperity or wealth; when economists and the media talk about "economic growth" they are usually referring to growth of GDP. But GDP does not measure all aspects of economic activity, and as such, if economic policies are designed to maximize the growth of GDP, they will necessarily favor aspects of economic growth which are reflected in GDP, and they may neglect other sorts of economic behaviors, such as volunteer work, work and value created by work done by parents, families, or friends for each other or for their families, or even certain government or business activities that do not involve money changing hands.
  • Dieting and Weight Loss - Sometimes people get into a mentality that the more weight they lose, the better. When this is the only factor that a person focuses on when making decisions about eating, they can fall into a mindset of eating as few calories as possible. This can be damaging to someone's overall health, nutrition, and relationship with food, and it can lead to eating disorders. It can also be a problem when doctors blame all of someone's health problems on being overweight.

Not viewing someone as a whole person

In our rules of communication, we have the positive principle, "talk about each person as a whole person." When someone measures a person's entire worth by a single factor, such as their income or their grades, then they are not seeing them as a whole person, but as only one quality. Seeing people this way can negatively effect a person's self-esteem, because the person may see their own value as being dependent on one factor, which is unstable. It can also encourage people to constantly compare themselves to other people and feel insecure about how they measure up. When a person believes that people can be valuable in many different ways, it's harder to compare one's value directly to someone else's.

Missing creative solutions to problems

When people are thinking one-dimensionally, they may be less likely to find creative solutions to problems. For example, in a conflict resolution, people may see the best solution as a compromise which is halfway between what both parties want, when there may be better solutions that involve more creative thinking.