“Everything in life cannot and should not be seen in only two different shades of color. There is no truth in defining things in black and white since there are so infinitely many different underlying factors for each action performed by each person. Narrow-mindedness is for the socially detached individual.” – Berivan Selim
Good or evil.
Right or wrong.
Perfect or terrible.
Smart or stupid.
Republican or Democrat.
Always or never.
Love or hate.
With us or against us.
When you read the word pairs in the list above, did you notice the pattern?
Each pair represents perceived opposites, and are examples of black-and-white thinking.
This kind of thinking – also called splitting or all-or-nothing thinking – is the failure to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities into a cohesive, realistic whole.
Along the spectrum between black-and-white lies an abundance of gray area.
But in black-and-white thinking, those shades of gray are ignored.
Also known as the false dilemma or binary thinking, black-and-white thinking doesn’t allow for the many different variables, conditions, nuance, and contexts in which there would exist more than just the two possibilities (usually opposite extremes) presented. It frames arguments misleadingly and obscures rational, honest discussion.
In reality, situations are almost always shades of gray, not black or white. Falling victim to black-and-white thinking tends to exacerbate problems, including depression, anxiety, and conflict in relationships.
Black-and-white thinking can prevent us from seeing things as they really are.
As Adelina Moisan explains in How to Stop Black-and-White Thinking from Destroying Your Life,
Things are never as bad as they seem. Or as good, for that matter. Which means that relationships can’t be either “perfect” or “ruined”, people aren’t either “smart” or “stupid”, “strong” or “weak”, “good” or “bad”. We are have a unique mixture of intelligence, weak spots, strengths, positive and negative traits.
What causes this kind of thinking?
Black-and-white thinking can occur intentionally, when the fallacy is used in an attempt to force a choice or outcome, or it may occur by accident.
Sometimes it is the result of a habit of viewing the world with limited sets of options. And, sometimes, it is done with the intent to manipulate others.
Examples of black-and-white thinking are perhaps most apparent (and rampant) during election season and political debate.
Here are two common examples:
“Vote for _____! He/she is the lesser of the two evils!” (The fact that there are usually more than two candidates to choose from is ignored, and so is the option of not voting at all.)
“You don’t like ____? Oh, you must be a Democrat/Republican!” (The fact that there are more than two political parties in the US is ignored, and so is the fact that disliking a candidate from one party does not necessarily mean that you “like” one from another.)
In the article Black-and-White Thinking in our Social Worlds, Glenn Geher, PhD. explains why we are prone to this kind of thinking:
Our minds seem to like simple categorical ways to divide up information in the world. This is kind of interesting given how terribly complex and nuanced most things are – especially in our social lives. So why do we so strongly tend toward categorical simplicity in understanding the world? And what are costs and benefits of such reasoning in our day-to-day lives?
One of the interesting things about human social psychology is that, in many regards, we tend to over-simplify stimuli in our social worlds – seeing things that could be conceptualized as complex and nuanced as simple and categorical. For instance, in many ways, we divide people into the category of “on my team” or “not” per the powerful ingroup/outgroup phenomenon (Billig & Tajfel, 1973). Quickly and automatically, people divide folks into these categories – and research has shown that we treat people very differently if they are in our (psychologically constructed) group or not.
And, Donald Miller of Storyline says,
Black-and-white thinking is attractive because it’s reductionistic; it simplifies everything so we don’t really have to comprehend. It allows us to feel intelligent without understanding, and once we are intelligent, we feel superior. People who don’t agree with us are just dumb.
It is a common defense mechanism used by many people.
What are the possible consequences of black-and-white thinking?
Being overly simplistic can be the basis of major problems in our careers and relationships.
When we believe that whatever thought camp we subscribe to is morally good and the other is morally bad, we demonize other positions. This further impairs our ability to think and uncover truth. As Miller explains, “Instead, we are armed with ammo from the twenty-four hour news cycle that helps us defend our identities rather than search for truth.” This concept is called confirmation bias.
Black-and-white thinking can disrupt the balance in our lives because it leads us to believe we have to do everything or nothing at all. Quite often, that results in inaction, because we’re so fixated on everything being just right that we end up doing nothing at all.
Remember: NOTHING is perfect and most things are not simply defined. Thinking in black-and-white sets us up for perpetual frustration and disappointment.
How to avoid black-and-white thinking
First, try this activity from PsychCentral:
Read this list of several pairs of opposites. Write down a word – just ONE word – that accurately describes the middle ground between each pair of opposites.
Example: hot and cold. Possible options here would be “warm,” “lukewarm,” or “temperate.”
1. black and white
2. large and small
3. up and down
4. left and right
5. fast and slow
6. easy and hard
7. young and old
8. loud and quiet
9. good and bad
10. near and far
11. pass and fail
12. happy and sad
13. clean and dirty
14. shy and outgoing
15. calm and anxious
Were you easily able to find convenient words or phrases to describe the middle ground between the polar opposites in the list?
It was challenging, wasn’t it?
There seems to be a lack of simple, common words we can use to express our more subtle thoughts and feelings.
But understanding this can make you happier, believe it or not, says Moisan. That’s because you’ll no longer be a slave to the “must” and “shoulds.” Accepting the “maybes” and “what ifs” as part of life will be easier. You’ll realize that perceptions of “good” and “bad” are all in your mind.
Here are some additional tips to help you avoid black-and-white thinking.
Separate your ego from your ideas. Miller reminds us:
Our ideas aren’t really ours; they are just ideas. They may be true ideas, which makes them important, but they aren’t our true ideas, and people should have the free will to either agree with them or not. It is very difficult to be honest with ourselves about whether our egos are involved, but it’s the territory of a better thinker.
Reframe your thinking. If you catch yourself thinking or speaking in absolutes, take a moment to reflect before continuing. Are you really a terrible cook? Is it truly accurate to say you are terrified of spiders? Stop, think logically and rationally, and be honest with yourself: Are you exaggerating? Is the language you are using extreme?
Say goodbye to Never and Every. Banishing absolutes from your vocabulary will be tricky at first, but it will train you to think more realistically.
Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. It is okay to not have all of the answers, and it is okay to admit that you are still gathering information and – most important – it is okay to admit that you are still learning.
“Life is about the gray areas. Things are seldom black and white, even when we wish they were and think they should be, and I like exploring this nuanced terrain.” – Emily Giffin