What Is The Cost Of Black And White Thinking?

Managing our thoughts means having a balance between simple good/bad distinctions and more nuanced awareness of life’s complexity. Black and white thinking — focused on simplifying and judging — can be harmful when it is overused.

Black and white thinking is simplifying things to the point that only opposites are visible. We can reel off sets of opposites like good and bad, wise and foolish, spicy and bland. We learn these opposites as children. Our brains are naturally designed to compare, judge and simplify. We do it because the world is so complicated. Categorizing helps us understand our reality. Simplifying allows us to make decisions quickly, discard problematic alternatives and quickly fight against danger. With benefits like that, it’s no wonder we do a lot of it!

But black and white thinking has a predictable set of problems associated with it. Our brains forget that they are simplifying things and mistake the cartoon for the reality. With situations that are far from our hearts, this may not matter. We don’t necessarily need a deep understanding of a sports hero we love or a terrorist who makes us shudder.

When we are dealing with people who matter to us, however, over-simplification makes it hard to navigate the complexities of relationships. When someone views their ex-spouse as an ogre, it may ease the pain of loss, but it becomes hard to negotiate the best visit schedule for their kids. When someone finds their new lover perfect after just one date, the rush is exhilarating, but disappointment is ahead. When a teen suddenly hates the best friend who has hurt them, a valuable friendship could be at risk.

In a family, black and white thinking can make every argument into a tug of war between right and wrong. If you are “Right” and the other person is “Wrong,” you can put a lot of energy and even anger into defending your position. This is such as temptation that I encourage families to try to come up with a third option in problem solving. Instead of deciding whether to vacation in Alaska or Florida, the family can debate the merits of Chicago as well as Alaska and Florida. This helps everyone look at pros and cons, avoiding the good/bad dichotomy. Brainstorming is a similar tool — by getting into a creative mode and generating lots of ideas, the tendency toward tunnel vision is decreased.

We also can develop habits of thought that remind us of complexity. Practice taking another person’s perspective. Look for the silver lining of a difficult situation. Or consider the dangers in a promising new technology. Encounter new ideas, go to new places, and try new activities.

Depression and anxiety are emotional states that thrive on black and white thinking. Self-criticism and fears of terrible things that could go wrong can be both a cause and result of misery. Pessimistic judgments about other people and difficulty considering other alternatives become the norm when a person is stuck in a depressed or anxious state. A study from the University of Reading found that “absolutist” words were 50 percent greater in anxiety and depression forums than other types of online discussions. Even knowing that these thoughts aren’t logical doesn’t dismiss the feelings. However, that awareness can help a person do something to shift their mood (for instance call a friend or put on happy music). When the mood shifts, the thoughts become more manageable.

“Moderation in all things” is a good maxim for eating, spending, hobbies, and more. Goldilocks rejected the hot and cold porridge and chose the one that was “just right”. When we are planning our workout, moderation is better than giving up and staying home — and it is also better than pushing ourselves to the point of injury! Sometimes a continuum is helpful (e.g. a plan to exercise 5 minutes more each week till we reach our target). Other times feedback is the key. Many apps remind you of your spending goals; wearable fitness trackers remind you of your activity level, and exercise machines track when you are in the zone.

When do we want black and white thinking? People who decide to give up something (stop drinking or smoking or give up chocolate for Lent) will discover that a black and white rule takes less will power than a moderate approach. The person who threw away their last pack of cigarettes won’t agonize over “I’ll cut back tomorrow!” By making one black and white choice, I save myself having to make the decision 20 times each day when I feel a craving for my old habit. This is also true of who we decide to be — a decision that often preoccupies young adults, but can be revisited many times throughout our lives. Once a person decides that she is “athlete”, a “recycler” or an “honest person”, that firm attitude makes some later decisions automatic.

There is a third option we can use at times. Meditative traditions such as mindfulness teach the ability to suspend judgment entirely — at least for a few moments. Experiencing reality as it presents itself, with no categories or evaluations, is surprisingly challenging. It can broaden our perspective as we notice how automatic judging and categorizing are for human beings! We might find there is beauty in contemplating that weed or empowerment in transcending a toothache.

So, despite the brain’s tendency to black and white, we have options of simplifying, considering complexity, or resisting the impulse to judge. Flexibility is a trait that supports good mental health.

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