How Black-And-White Thinking Distorts Your Perception of Life and How to Stop It

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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.

Schematic Realities

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.

References:

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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About the Author:

Andreea is a freelance writer who is deeply passionate about the wonders of life, emotions and psychology. Her motto is, "What comes easy won't last long and what lasts long won't come easy."

7 Comments

  1. Hien Anh Nguyen August 11, 2018 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    I just read your “black and white” thinking article. Let’s see your motto “What comes easy won’t last long and what lasts long won’t come easy” as an example. Is that black and white thinking?

    I agree that we are living in a dischotomous schematization reality. We need that as a guidance on our decisions. But if there is no black and white thinking, there will be no conclusions, no belief, no proverbs, no motto or mantra, slogan, and worse: no science. When you set your mind to write an article supporting stopping or repressing black and white thinking, you had made a black and white decision.

    I would think that to live with a clear mind, black and white thinking is a skill to be developed by many people who lack critical thinking. Rather than stopping black and white thinking, I think we should embrace it, as we embrace a colourful range and vocabulary of emotion. The question is not to avoid any extremity, but how to avoid making a premature decision or conclusion before considering all/ many different faces of the reality. At the end of the day, you will need to make a conclusion to avoid being stucked forever in the same stage/ problem. Any real conclusion is black and white within specific (subset of) conditions, otherwise it’s not a conclusion.

  2. Imana's cave August 12, 2018 at 12:15 am - Reply

    Black and white thinking is the ability to understand the difference between good and bad. It is not at all the distorting people’s minds. is the ability to make sense of Chaos and simplify what counts as good and what county is evil. Wisdom and smarts comes from the ability to simplify the complicated.

    It is easy for black and white thinkers to do that. Those who don’t think in black and white have a much harder time.

  3. Imana's cave August 12, 2018 at 12:21 am - Reply

    *”Exercising black-and-white thinking means believing that things can be completely right or totally wrong”,*

    Exactly, there is always a right and wrong way to do things.

    Thinking in black and white allows you to understand what is CORRECT and what is incorrect.

    Perfection comes from making mistakes. Anything that is wrong or mistaken are imperfections, therefore they are incorrect.

    Understanding perfection vs imperfection is how you understand right from wrong.

    That is how you simplify the complicated into black and white.

  4. Imana's cave August 12, 2018 at 12:51 am - Reply

    *”That people are either friends or foes,”*

    – Exactly because not everybody is going to be your friend. Not everybody cares about you and not everybody can be trusted.

    -It is your job to understand who are your true friends and who will lie to you, cheat you and stab you in the back.

    -It is your responsibility to understand who you can trust and who cannot be trusted.

    _That is called having priorities and protecting yourself from painful endeavors. Establishing standards so that you may protect yourself from people’s negative Energies.

    *”That the days are perfect or a nightmare,”*

    This is where you are incorrect. I’m a black and white thinker and even I don’t think that.

    Black and white thinkers have to be optimistic, giving people a chance to redeem themselves to further encourage positivity; and eliminate negativity. To further push through obstacles we do not think that something is a complete failure or a complete success with out weighing the odds against them. To determine and understand whether that day was truly a failure or Trulia success, if there are more mishaps then positive feedbacks and vice versa. That is how we identify how we should see that day.

    And then we optimistically think we shall improve and do better next time.

    *”That all that is not a success is a failure,”*

    Well duh! The definition of success is doing things correctly. The definition of failure is doing things incorrectly. You can’t be successful at your job if all you do is fail.

    Success and failure are both black and white words. You simply can’t succeed if you failed.

    *”and that all that is not virtuous is vicious.”*

    Exactly, I mean if someone doesn’t have any kind of morals or standards setting themselves straight. Then they’re clearly crooked. People that don’t know how to be friends or how to be kind because there are no morals or standards defining that.

    They have no basic character structure of right or wrong.

    Therefore they are a high potential of causing harm to others because they know not, how to not.

    For example, this article catches itself “THINKING” that it’s doing a “good” thing by telling people to not think in black and white. That it’s dangerous and can distort your mind when, in fact it’s giving the opposite of good advice, by giving bad advice and misinformation on something that is completely good.

    Therefore the writer of this article is ignorant and therefore vicious because it is ignorant of its own mistakes. Therefore they don’t know to correct themselves.

    Not knowing to correct yourself makes you a potential danger.

    Using the word vicious can be harsh towards the ignorant. So in this case I wouldn’t call you vicious. I will call you sinister.

    *”It is now or never.”* Not exactly, black and white thinking is the beliefs of a time limit. But within it’s time there are second chances until the deadline.

    *”We are beautiful or ugly, that you love or you hate, and so on.”*

    Why must you always use such strong words?

    It is true, that you are either beautiful or ugly; because you can either be beautiful on the outside, but ugly on the inside and vice versa.

    Beauty isn’t just skin deep, it also has to do with your character. If you display characteristics of ugliness, you are therefore ugly.

    But if you display characteristics of beauty, no matter how ugly you are on the outside. You are beautiful on the inside, like the Hunchback Of Notre Dame.

    As ugly as he was, he was a kind and gentle person.

    Love and hate are strong words, I would prefer the word care or don’t care. Stemming from the ability to acknowledge someone and show respect, or that you don’t like them as much. So you ignore them and show disrespect.

    As far as love, you can either strongly care about someone and love them, or strongly dislike them and hate them.

  5. Gary Hynous August 12, 2018 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    In certain situations I feel that black/white thinking can be helpful. Personally I think that the shades of gray in between is where our most helpful thinking resides. Look at a situation or comment, take a moment to step back from the issue, so to speak, and then react as appropriately as possible. Park your ego at the door and use you intellect to respond as appropriately as is possible in the moment. Remember that the past is ashes, over and done, the future is a mystery which will be revealed in the present moment which is the place we have to live in and learn to deal with the situations life throws at us every moment of every day.

  6. Common Sense August 15, 2018 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    You can never solve any problem with the same Consciousness that got you into the problem in the first place. Many Bi-Polar and Borderlines exclusively use this technique of Friend or Foe, Black or White, My way or the Highway mindset to deal with life. Life and Emotions are complex. Simplifying them makes it easier for those that have these disorders. They call them Disorders for a reason. Its doesn’t make these people Bad or Wrong, that would be judgment! It means they don’t have a full set of tools to work with, in the shed.

    Someone with a Cognitive Disorder will read my words and take it as an attack. How do you take them?

    Cognitive Dissonance tends to run very deep at times…..

    Life is not all nothing….Black or White…..there is a whole lot grey in between.

  7. Tammy August 19, 2018 at 12:55 am - Reply

    Black and white thinking, for me, is like living in a tunnel. There are only two ways to go. I prefer to live in the vastness of gray, where there are many options and possibilities. Who is to say what is right or wrong as long as no harm comes to others? To each his own, we all must find our own way to travel through life. I prefer to be neither a friend nor a foe, just a good person traveling down the path of many colors who causes no harm to others. I believe black and white thinking leads to judgement, and judgement has divided us as a species. Why is it, that the way it is, can’t just be the way it is? Why does it always have to be either good or bad and labeled as such? What was bad today may turn out to be a good thing tomorrow. With an open mind, one travel far along the path of gray

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