Black and white thinking is the tendency to see things in extremes, and to view the world through a very polarized lens. Even complex moral issues are seen as clearcut, with simple right and wrong answers and no gray areas in between.
Also referred to as all-or-nothing thinking or dichotomous thinking, black and white thinking is a very rigid and binary way of looking at the world. Black and white thinkers tend to categorize things, events, people, and experiences as either completely good or completely bad, without acknowledging any nuance or shades of gray. This can manifest in various aspects of their lives including relationships, decision-making, and self-evaluation. Black and white thinking can be a defense mechanism, as it provides a sense of certainty and control in situations that are complex, uncertain, or anxiety-provoking.
For example, a person who engages in black and white thinking may view their work performance as either completely successful or a complete failure, without considering any middle ground. They may view themselves as either a “good” or “bad” person, based on a single action or mistake. This type of extreme thinking can lead to feelings of extreme anxiety, depression, and self-doubt, as well as difficulties in personal and professional relationships.
Black and white thinking in political psychology
Black and white thinking can also be seen in political or social contexts, where individuals categorize people or groups as either completely good or completely bad, without acknowledging any nuances or complexities. This type of thinking can lead to polarizing beliefs, rigid ideologies, and an unwillingness to engage in constructive dialogue or compromise.
The origins of black and white thinking are complex and multifaceted, but it can stem from a variety of factors, including childhood experiences, cultural and societal influences, and psychological disorders including personality disorder. For example, individuals who have experienced trauma or abuse may engage in black and white thinking as a way to cope with the complexity and ambiguity of their experiences. Similarly, cultural or societal influences that promote a strict adherence to binary categories can also contribute to black and white thinking.
Psychological disorders such as borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders are also associated with black and white thinking. For example, individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may see themselves or others as either completely good or completely bad, without any middle ground. This type of thinking can lead to unstable relationships, impulsive behavior, and emotional dysregulation.
Narcissists too, especially malignant narcissists, tend to exhibit black and white thinking, with the frequent framing of any narrative as being primarily about themselves (good/The Hero) and everyone else (bad/The Other).
Challenging black and white thinking
There are several strategies that can be used to challenge and overcome black and white thinking. One of the most effective ways is to practice mindfulness, which involves being present in the moment and observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment. Mindfulness can help individuals to become more aware of their thought patterns and to challenge any extreme or polarized thinking.
Another strategy is to engage in cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns and beliefs. This can involve examining evidence for and against the black and white thinking, as well as exploring alternative perspectives and possibilities.
Overall, black and white thinking can be a limiting and damaging cognitive pattern that can negatively impact various aspects of an individual’s life. However, with awareness, practice, and support, it is possible to overcome this pattern and develop a more nuanced and balanced view of the world.
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