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People sometimes tell me that they suffer from “black and white” thinking.  What is “black and white” thinking and why would it cause pain?

In our world, there is what we call the objective and the subjective.

Objective means we all share an agreed upon perspective.  It is not personal.  2+2=4.  Some plants, if eaten, are poisonous and deadly.  Sodium and chloride together make the compound salt.

Subjective means we each have our own perspective, perhaps shared, perhaps not.  It is personal.  Classical music is beautiful or classical music is boring.  Autumn is dark and cold, or autumn is colorful and cozy.  Salt tastes good and boosts food flavors, or salt tastes bad and masks food flavors.

A significant element to happiness comes from knowing the difference between the objective and the subjective.  The way to know is to ask, “Is there another way to look at this?”  I love that question.

Is there another way to look at 2+2=4?  No.  OK.  Good to know.

Is there another way to look at classical music is beautiful?  Yes.  OK.  Good to know.  

There is a comfort in the objective.  It can be very calming when there is an objective right or wrong.  However, sometimes we can accidentally confuse the objective with the subjective.  We can mistakenly reduce a whole spectrum of possibilities down to the most extreme options of two.  Most people sometimes fall into this thought pattern, but some people get stuck in this “black and white” thinking.

When we do this, we are attempting to force the world to conform to our personal, subjective conceptions of what it should look like, and to fit into categories that are of our own creation.

For example, people sometimes insist that whoever is not with me, whoever does not agree with me, must be against me.  This dichotomy assumes that there are only two possible categories, with me and against me, and that everyone must belong to the former or the latter.  Other possible shades of “gray”, like agreeing with our principles but not our methods, are ignored completely.  In other words, such absolutist reactions stems from an intolerance of the co-existence of “positive” and “negative” features in the same situation and ultimately leads to this attempt to oversimplify reality.

If a person does get stuck in the tendency to see the whole world in extremes, to perceive with a narrow worldview of either-or, this can cause significant distress.  The American Psychological Association classifies such “black and white” thinking as a cognitive distortion, since the lens through which the world is categorized has become distorted.

I practice cognitive behavior therapy, CBT, a powerful method formulated by Aaron T. Beck, MD, to identify and question cognitive distortions, also known as stressful thoughts.  Left unchecked, stressful thoughts can get stuck in a feedback loop, leading to anxiety or depression.  

In the case of “black and white” thinking, there are some obvious possible stressful thoughts a person might be thinking and believing.  “Other people should see the situation as I do.”  “My way of seeing the situation is better than yours.”  

Once a stressful thought is identified, using CBT, we question it.  Is it true?  The truth is, of course, that everyone in the world has their own perspective and sees situations from that perspective.  When we believe otherwise, we suffer, often with depression and rage.  However much we want other people to see as we do, however much we want our perspective to be the only perspective, it does not change the fact that often this is not possible.  

If people are fighting, this side against that side, we can begin to see that we don’t actually have to pick a side.  We can raise our awareness, raise our consciousness, to find a perspective that includes both “sides” and solves the problem.  

Organizing aspects of reality into dichotomous or “black and white” categories is often useful.  However, when we categorize aspects of reality into a narrow set of either-or options, when there are, instead, a range of possibilities, we can get painfully stuck.  We can feel rageful and depressed by the limited possibilities for understanding and actions.  The key then is to be able to learn to recognize when we are accidentally using “black and white” thinking when we are looking at a rainbow.

Yurica, C.L., DiTomasso, R.A. (2005). Cognitive Distortions.  In: Freeman, A., Felgoise, S.H., Nezu, C.M., Nezu, A.M., Reinecke, M.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Cognitive Behavior Therapy.  Springer, Boston, MA.

Joshua Stewart (2023) Linguistic Fingerprints and Ideological Fragmentation; Behind enemy minds, The RUSI Journal, 168:1-2, 74-87.