Black and White

Quick Summary: Black and white thinking is a cognitive distortion, a thought pattern that leads us to extremes, limits our options, and interferes with our ability to see the world as it is– but there are strategies for addressing it.

Black-and-white thinking is a thought pattern that tends to view things in absolutes or extremes. Also called dichotomous thinking (things are either one way or another) or polarized thinking, it is an all-or-nothing perspective that hides complexity, nuance, and gray areas, dealing instead with absolutes. This type of thinking is fairly rigid, and does not allow people to find the middle ground between two perspectives. In fact, that rigidity is arguably its hallmark– the tendency to view the extremes without being able to see the middle.

From a black-and-white perspective, a person might be good or bad, but there are not a lot of other ways of viewing them. When something does not go the way we would like, a black-and-white approach would say, this ALWAYS fails or this NEVER works. This type of thinking tends to oscillate from one extreme to another. I got a good evaluation at work so I am the best, followed by a bad interaction with your boss, leading to thinking that I am the worst. Words that can be tip-offs to this kind of thinking include all, never, always, only, either, or, worst, best.

Generally, any time we think in a way that is not consistent with reality, we suffer more. When our view of reality does not match reality itself, we introduce a lot of unnecessary and unhelpful friction into our lives. This pattern of thinking is common, and commonly gets in the way of our health and happiness.

For example, when trying to make different food choices, this type of thinking will categorize foods as either “good” or “bad.” When we are working on making change (which is almost always gradual and filled with setbacks), we will view our progress as either great or terrible. If we are trying to improve our food choices, and eat a donut, the though might be, “I’m terrible, why even bother, I always screw it up.” It makes it easy to fall into the trap of thinking we have to eat perfectly (whatever that means) and if we are not, we must therefore be eating terribly.

In our relationships, black-and-white thinking causes us to swing from a perception that someone is the best, our most perfect, important friend to an awful, no-good, really bad person. All relationships involve ups and downs, and so when we have inevitable conflict, black-and-white thinking does not really tolerate the discord but immediately jumps to the extreme. Instead of saying to ourself, “I’ve been through a lot this this person, and this is just an area we disagree” thoughts would instead be “I thought I knew this person and they were a good person, but know I realize they are a bad person.”

If thinking in absolutes or extremes is not usually helpful, what can be done about it?

The first (and maybe most important) step is to simply recognize that you are engaging in this pattern of thought. Without recognition, there is little hope of meaningfully viewing things differently. Recognizing this can be hard to do, but some strategies for doing it include:

  • Paying attention to big swings in perception. If you notice your view of someone or something changing quickly and dramatically, ask yourself if you are engaging in black-and-white thinking.
  • Listening for certain words: all, never, always, only, either, or, worst, best, catastrophe, amazing. There is no one word that is a giveaway, but these words are often associated with this type of thinking. If you are using them to describe a situation, that might be a tip-off.
  • When we think in extremes and absolutes, our options are often limited. If you find yourself feeling trapped, stuck, or without options it may be related less to your actual situation, and more to your thought pattern.
  • Listening to others– in reality, it can be difficult to see this thought pattern in ourselves. Recruiting others ( a friend, a family member, or a professional such as a therapist) to help us notice these thought patterns in ourselves can be invaluable.

If you have recognized this pattern of thought (or an example of this has come up), how can we move past it? How can we adjust our thinking to not live at the extremes, and instead to live in the middle and see many possibilities?

  • Try making a list. Forcing ourselves to write down multiple options, or multiple ways of addressing a situation, can get us out of the thought pattern. It almost does not matter if the options are ridiculous– the point is to help yourself recognize that there are multiple options, viewpoints, or ways of approaching a problem.
  • Listening to others (without interrupting!) can be helpful. Sometimes, we are so stuck in our perspective that we need an outside viewpoint to help us see other options.
  • Asking questions such as are there any other possibilities? or What else could I do or are there different explanations for this?
  • Formal therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be quite helpful with decreasing this cognitive bias. In addition, there are workbooks and exercises that can help.

Black and white thinking has been linked to childhood trauma, and shifting this perspective is (wait for it…) not black and white. We will all, occasionally, engage in this type of thought process. Think of change as a process, a journey of viewing the world more accurately. If you do find yourself doing this, that does not make you bad (that itself would be a good example of black and white thinking). Instead, realize that recognizing this pattern of thinking takes time and is something you can work on.

-Dr. Justin