The black-and-white thinking divides reality into light and dark with a clean cut, canceling its complexity, ambiguity, and every nuance. It makes us think in terms of “all or nothing”.
Exercising black-and-white thinking means believing that things can be completely right or totally wrong, that people are either friends or foes, that the days are perfect or a nightmare, that all that is not a success is a failure, and that all that is not virtuous is vicious. It is now or never. We are beautiful or ugly, that you love or you hate, and so on.
In short: black-and-white thinking tends to define a situation by making clear, rigid and permanent distinctions. It reduces the multiform, complex and sometimes indecipherable chaos to “this” or “that”. It tends to define the reality of people and events with only two opposing categories: good or bad.
Black-And-White Thinking Is a Cognitive Distortion
The black-and-white thinking is very reassuring, especially if the thinker automatically puts him/herself on the side of reason, intelligence, justice, beauty and truth.
Just open the newspaper, listen to a piece of news and make a list of how many examples of dichotomous thought you found. You will be surprised to see how many individuals think in black and white.
If you want some empirical criteria to recognize them quickly, then here are three examples:
- Only seeing one side of a situation.
- Ignoring the contrary evidence and not questioning one’s source of information.
- Getting into heated arguments with those who do not share one’s opinions.
Thus, the black-and-white thinking is a cognitive distortion: one of the many biases that can obscure our ability to judge and make good decisions. They deform or erase all elements not congruent with the “black and white” vision, which instead should reasonably be considered.
Why It Is a Disadvantageous Way of Thinking
The black-and-white thinking is reassuring, at least, in the short term, but in the long run, it has several disadvantages:
- Limits our ability to connect with and understand the world, which is not always black or white.
- Reduces the number of choices we have available and erases any possibility of mediation and synthesis. And when we erase possible choices, it becomes easy to feel angry or impotent, or maybe both at the same time.
- Precludes creative solutions. The judgments are unquestionable and the right path is one and only one, there is no room for the invention of any new or better alternative.
- It is an egocentric and childish way of thinking.
- Induces depression: what is not good will only continue to be worse. What is wrong will become irreparable. What is ugly will become monstrous, what is scary will become terrifying, what is negative will become catastrophic.
- Psychologists say that black-and-white thinking is indicative of the possible presence of a personality disorder.
And yet, we are surrounded by interesting dichotomous schematizations: Nature and Culture. East and West. Peace and War. Public and Private. Masculine and Feminine. Vice and Virtue. City and Countryside. Freedom and Oppression. Right and Left. Health and Illness. Reason and Sentiment. Youth and Old Age. And so on.
But those dichotomies express the extreme polarizations of reality that are a continuum. Between one pole and the other, there is not a chasm but a more or less wide and variously shaded area of gray.
Small doses of black-and-white thinking can, therefore, be useful in life. And as long as you commit to paying attention to all the thousands changing shades of gray (and the thousand rainbows), you can have a reasonable and balanced view of the world we live in.
How to Develop Balanced Patterns of Thinking
The power of thought is one of the most important tools that man can use to understand life and shape it. Constructive thoughts transform, renew and model.
Positive thinking does not mean having a blind optimism, superficiality in addressing problems or indifference. It is a way of understanding and enjoying life by following a sum of realistic and fair principles.
Each one of us has the power to change their own level of personal happiness. This explains why people with positive thinking are more successful, have a better mental and even physical health. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that patients affected by serious and even fatal illnesses but who have retained positive thinking have survived more than those who have seen reality more objectively.
So, let’s look at 4 steps you could take to change your black-and-white attitude towards life:
1. Be Ready to Accept
The ability to see something from many points of view gives an individual the ability to accept and understand a situation much better and find more solutions. Instead of saying “Today is going to be a bad day! Look at these clouds!”, try to say “Finally, some fresh air!”.
2. Do Not Judge
Open-minded people are willing to listen to someone without judging or develop certain conclusions before they finish talking. Do not assume you know someone just because they shared with you a few details of their story.
3. Be Curious
Do not think that a story or a piece of information contains all the knowledge you need. Research the information from more resources, ask questions and compare.
This skill will also help you deal with challenges as it can encourage you to develop better strategies for understanding and solving issues.
4. Live in the Present
People who are open-minded try not to spend too much of their energy and time thinking of their past negative experiences as this doesn’t help their personal evolution. On the other hand, they also try not to worry too much about the future because there are too many possibilities to be taken into account that can change the plans or the course of a story in a few seconds.
Thus, the best way to walk through life’s challenges is to focus your energy and attention on what you have now in the place where life has taken you at this moment.
Although the reasons why we choose to think in black and white may vary, we must always remember that there can be infinite ways to resolve a situation and so many aspects that can influence a person’s behaviour or story.
So next time before you put a label on someone or something, take a step back and reconsider if you really understood the root cause and all the details.