Lumping and splitting

As a young psychotherapy researcher I learned that some of my colleagues were “lumpers” and others were “splitters.” The former look at research data and see commonalities. Instead of different kinds of psychotherapy, say, they see a spectrum of styles with a shared core. Lumpers search for universal truths, missing links, ways of combining categories. They apply this to people too.  Lumpers believe we are more alike than we are different, that our personalities differ in degree, not in fundamental type. We all bleed the same color.

Splitters, on the other hand, make distinctions. Different psychotherapies are as different as salt and pepper. The more categories we recognize, the better we understand the world, and each other. Science advances as we see distinctions we previously overlooked. The classification of human disease ever expands. Biologists name new sub-species. And as for people, our personalities fall into discrete types: narcissistic, sociopathic, neurotic — and normal.  Splitters call a spade a spade.

While the splitter in me just divided people into two kinds — lumper and splitter — the lumper in me now adds that we are all mixtures of both. Developmental psychology bears this out. At birth, we can’t even tell our mothers from ourselves — the ultimate lumping. But soon a sense of self appears, culminating in the “terrible twos” when toddlers delight in black-and-white thinking and contrary opinions — crude but heartfelt splitting.  With maturity comes a balanced appreciation of both commonality and difference. (To therapists, “splitting” is a technical term for polarized, binary thinking that pathologically persists into adulthood.)  The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget described a similar cognitive adaptation as “assimilation” and “accommodation.”  In learning about the world, the child assimilates (lumps) various observations into a single schema — all furry pets are “dogs” — until that schema fits so poorly that the child must accommodate (split) it into “dogs” and “cats.”  Lumping and splitting are in dynamic tension as we develop.

Splitting rules American and international politics today.  Difference, not commonality, echoes across the political spectrum. The right is an old hand at this. Conservatives draw stark lines around good and evil, law-abiding and criminal, citizen and immigrant. A “good guy with a gun” is a different species than a similarly armed “bad guy,” never mind that even good guys may suffer a momentary lapse of judgment, or simply misinterpret a fast-unfolding situation.  Those who disagree with conservatism are dismissed as socialists or “snowflakes.” Politics today banks on race, religion, and nationalism. The brotherhood of man is for losers. The epitome of splitting, the alt-right, has been welcomed into the mainstream by the President himself.

However, the contemporary left also splits like crazy. Identity politics erects walls defining who is in and who is out. Those who disagree with progressivism are dismissed as racists or fascists. “Cultural appropriation” condemns the mixing of cultures and the blurring of boundaries, while “intersectionality” slices us into finer and finer categories. In 2014 Facebook introduced at least 58 gender labels for self-identification. We belong to smaller and smaller groups, perhaps ultimately to groups of one. By striving to make every unique voice heard, the left has fractured itself into politically powerless factions, the very opposite of collectivism.

Splitting is in our genes. It’s a survival mechanism we share with other animals. When startled, safety demands that we make a snap judgment of friend or foe. After all, ignoring danger can be fatal. Yet constantly expecting danger stifles the rewards of lumping, e.g., empathy, connection, seeing the big picture.  An individual who constantly splits to assure personal safety is mentally unwell: anxious, untrusting, exhausted.  Politically we now suffer the same illness.  From left to right we behave as though under attack, hunkered down, reduced to crude binary survival thinking and nothing better.

Children, psychotherapy researchers, and healthy societies must balance lumping and splitting. We split to assure our safety, autonomy, and comprehension. But we need to lump too. The toddler must learn to say yes occasionally. The researcher must concede that different schools of therapy look similar in practice. And despite our political differences, we must allow ourselves, and others, to feel safe enough to give up some of our grim and isolating splitting.

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