Black and white thinking is sometimes referred to as absolutist or dichotomous thinking. In this kind of thinking, something is all right, or all wrong, all good, or all bad. If you are not a total success, then you are a complete failure. There is no middle ground, regardless of situation or context. It is as if there is only hot water or cold water, no degrees of warm water. There are times when this kind of thinking is useful, even important. For example, for children who live in a home near busy streets, no playing in the street is an absolute rule. No middle ground there, no exceptions. Another example of when black and white or dichotomous thinking can be a positive is in time management. For example, if you set a time limit by which you must complete a project, then it does not serve that end result to introduce shades of gray, or excuses. When the time limit has come, the project is either done, or its not. Yet another example can be in terms of personal behaviors. We can adopt the attitude that there is no excuse, whatsoever, for domestic violence. Domestic violence is never tolerated, never accepted. That is absolute; there are no shades of gray.
For the most part, however, black and white thinking is problematic and there are far more cons than pros. The following list touches on a few of the major drawbacks of black and white, dichotomous, absolutist thinking:
- Limitation of options. When you only have two options, good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure, etc., your freedom and response-ability is significantly cramped. It would be as if we only see the sky as one shade of blue, when in fact, if we look from the horizon upwards, we see many shades of blue. That perception of numerous shades of blue then gives rise to different words to categorize those shades of blue. In a similar fashion, if we have begun to recognize various shades of gray between black and white, or degrees of success and/or failure, we have more options, are able to respond with a wider array of behaviors and will most likely feel less depressed, anxious or frustrated.
- Depression and anxiety. In black and white thinking, if you are not the smartest person in the class, or on the job, then you are the most stupid. That, of course, is not logical or rational, but neither is black and white thinking. Nevertheless, such thinking is commonplace and does give rise to depression and anxiety on a regular basis. Use of the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ are also part of this absolutist-thinking paradigm. If we tell ourselves that we will ‘always’ be a failure or ‘never’ be successful we not only limit our options for success but we fail to recognize that success can be measured in many different ways and within many different contexts. Because we tend to become complacent when successful, it is sometimes said that ‘nothing fails like success.’
- Anger. It is very easy to become frustrated, and angry, when we don’t get what we want, or expect. In black and white thinking, we typically want something totally, completely, and act as if it was unattained if we only gain it partially. For example, if a student wants an A on a test but only gets a B, that can be viewed as a total failure and generate intense anger, or depression. If, in a marriage, one spouse believes the other must behave in a certain way, and actually does most of the time, when they don’t, that indicates a total disregard and disrespect, which can generate a lot of anger, or depression.
So, what is the solution to this problem of black and white thinking? There are two methods that can be helpful to reduce this dichotomous kind of thinking.
- Recognize context. What is often right or good or successful in one context may not be in another. For example, it is clearly ‘wrong’ to kill. But, is it wrong to kill in self-defense? If someone treats you poorly, does it mean they are going to be that way to you all the time, or might it be they had a bad day?
- Use a Likert Scale. A Likert Scale is a way of gauging something with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest. So, if you were not performing at your best on any given day, rather than say you were a failure or you messed up or are were unsuccessful, grade your performance on a scale. Perhaps you were not at a 10 or a 9, but neither were you at a 1 or 2. Maybe you were around a 6 or a 7. Use of a Likert Scale can be employed in many situations. If somebody asks how you are today, rather than say ‘fine’ which doesn’t really say anything, say ‘on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being ecstatically happy and 1 being terribly depressed, I’m at about a 7 (or wherever you might gauge yourself to be).
Using these two approaches, context and the Likert Scale, can help minimize the kind of black and white thinking that generates limitations, depression, anxiety and anger. It will help expand your awareness outside of a restrictive dichotomy and into the rich, multi-dimensional shades of gray that our consciousness contains.