Black-and-white thinking is a cognitive distortion and mental heuristic characterized by viewing situations, people, or experiences in rigid, absolute terms.
This all-or-nothing mindset leaves no room for nuance or complexity, often leading to oversimplified and inaccurate perceptions (i.e. binary thinking). While it can be comforting to come to one absolute yes/no or good/bad answer to an issue, it fails to understand the complexity of the world (Bindon, 2016; Geher, 2016).
Negative consequences of black and white thinking can include emotional distress (Rochat, 2020), poor decision-making, and interpersonal conflicts (Jonason et al., 2018) by preventing individuals from considering alternative perspectives or recognizing the inherent complexity in life.
An example of black-and-white thinking is labeling a person as entirely good or bad based on a single action, rather than taking into account their varied traits and behaviors.
Black and White Thinking Examples
- Success or failure: Believing that anything less than perfect is a failure, not recognizing that progress and learning can be valuable outcomes.
- Good or bad people: Labeling someone as entirely good or bad based on one action or characteristic, without considering their complex traits and behaviors (Geher, 2016).
- Always or never: Assuming that someone will always or never do something based on a single instance or limited experience, without accounting for change or context.
- Love or hate: Believing that one can only feel complete love or hate for a person, place, or thing, rather than acknowledging mixed or evolving emotions.
- Right or wrong: Asserting that there is only one correct answer or approach to a situation or problem, not considering alternative perspectives or solutions.
- With me or against me: Assuming that if someone disagrees with a particular belief or opinion, they are completely opposed to the individual, rather than understanding that people can disagree on some issues and still share common ground (Jonason et al., 2018).
- All or nothing: Believing that if a goal or task cannot be completed entirely or perfectly, it is not worth pursuing at all, instead of recognizing the value of partial accomplishments or gradual progress.
- Healthy or unhealthy: Believing that a single indulgence ruins an otherwise healthy diet, instead of recognizing that occasional treats can be part of a balanced lifestyle.
- Beautiful or ugly: Labeling something as either completely beautiful or completely ugly, not taking into account the subjective nature of beauty or appreciating the potential for mixed characteristics.
- Smart or stupid: Judging a person’s intelligence based on one action or decision, without considering their knowledge, skills, and abilities in various areas (Sanivarapu, 2015) – often associated with a fixed mindset.
- Strong or weak: Assuming that displaying vulnerability or emotions makes someone weak, not acknowledging that strength and resilience can coexist with emotional expression.
- Introvert or extrovert: Labeling someone strictly as an introvert or extrovert, instead of recognizing the concept of ambiverts or the fact that people can display traits of both personality types depending on the context.
- Victim or survivor: Seeing someone who has experienced trauma as either a helpless victim or a triumphant survivor, without acknowledging the complex and nuanced healing process that can involve both vulnerability and strength (Geher, 2016).
- Optimist or pessimist: Labeling someone as either an optimist or a pessimist based on their outlook on one situation, not considering that people’s perspectives can change and vary across different contexts.
- Moral or immoral: Judging an action or decision as strictly moral or immoral, without taking into account cultural differences, personal values, or the broader context and consequences.
Negative Effects of Black and White Thinking
Academic literature demonstrates that black-and-white thinking can have several negative effects on an individual’s well-being, relationships, and overall functioning.
While it’s important to note that not all of these effects will be felt, some of the possible negative effects of black and white thinking include:
|Emotional distress||Experiencing intense negative emotions due to unrealistic expectations, such as viewing anything less than perfection as a failure (Born, 2019).|
|Poor decision-making||Overlooking alternative options or solutions by focusing on extreme choices (Geher, 2016), which can lead to suboptimal outcomes (Rochat, 2020).|
|Interpersonal conflicts||Struggling to maintain healthy relationships due to a lack of understanding, empathy, or flexibility when dealing with differences in opinions, beliefs, or behaviors (Geher, 2016). Associated with conditional positive regard.|
|Low self-esteem||Harshly judging oneself or others based on a single mistake or flaw, leading feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness.|
|Impaired problem-solving||Difficulty tackling complex issues (Sanivarapu, 2015) by oversimplifying them and not recognizing the various factors that contribute to a situation.|
|Rigidity||Inability to adapt to new information or experiences, as black-and-white thinking hinders personal growth and the development of a more balanced perspective.|
|Mental health issues||Contributing to or exacerbating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, as this thinking pattern reinforces negative thought cycles and cognitive distortions.|
|Reduced resilience||Struggling to cope with life’s challenges and setbacks due to a lack of acceptance and adaptability, which can hinder the ability to bounce back from difficult situations.|
Ways to Overcome Black and White Thinking
Generally, black and white thinking is addressed through clinical, cognitive and behavioral therapy. Some strategies therapists might recommend are provided below.
- Recognize and identify: Become aware of instances where you engage in black-and-white thinking. Pay attention to thoughts that involve absolutes like “always,” “never,” “good,” “bad,” “right,” or “wrong.” (Born, 2019)
- Challenge your thoughts: When you notice black-and-white thinking, question its accuracy and seek alternative perspectives (Rochat, 2020). Ask yourself if there’s evidence that supports your thoughts or if there are other possible explanations or viewpoints to consider.
- Embrace the gray area: Practice accepting ambiguity and complexity in situations, people, and experiences. Recognize that life is rarely black and white and that there is often a spectrum of possibilities between two extremes (Born, 2019).
- Develop cognitive flexibility: Work on being open-minded and adaptable to new information and ideas. This may involve entertaining multiple perspectives or revising your beliefs in light of new evidence.
- Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your thoughts and emotions, enabling you to recognize black-and-white thinking patterns and respond with greater self-compassion and non-judgmental curiosity (Jonason et al., 2018).
- Use a journal: Keeping a journal can help you track your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Write down instances of black-and-white thinking, and practice reframing those thoughts by considering alternative perspectives and possibilities.
- Surround yourself with diverse perspectives: Engage in conversations with people who hold different opinions or beliefs (Rochat, 2020), and expose yourself to various experiences and viewpoints. This exposure can help you develop a more nuanced understanding of the world and reduce black-and-white thinking.
- Practice patience and self-compassion: Changing ingrained thinking patterns takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself, and remember that it’s normal to experience setbacks along the way. Cultivate self-compassion as you work on developing more balanced thinking habits.
- Either/Or Fallacy: This fallacy occurs when only two options are provided and the person is told they must choose one. While the two options may appear at first to be your only choice, there are often additional options not presented.
- Dualistic Thinking: Synonymous to black and white thinking, dualistic thinking also refers to the idea that you are focused on two opposing and mutually exclusive points of view without room for ‘grey area’.
Black-and-white thinking can be a significant barrier to personal growth, emotional well-being, and healthy relationships (Born, 2019). By understanding the examples and negative effects of this cognitive distortion, individuals can become more aware of their thought patterns and work towards developing a more balanced perspective. Adopting strategies such as challenging thoughts, embracing the gray area, and practicing mindfulness can help individuals overcome black-and-white thinking and foster a more nuanced understanding of themselves and the world around them.
Bindon, S. L. (2016). Going Gray. Journal for Nurses in Professional Development, 32(2), 55.
Born, R. T. (2019). Banishing “black/white thinking”: a trio of teaching tricks. Eneuro, 6(6). doi: https://doi.org/10.1523%2FENEURO.0456-19.2019
Geher, G. (2016). Black-and-white thinking in our social worlds. Psychology Today.
Jonason, P. K., Oshio, A., Shimotsukasa, T., Mieda, T., Csathó, Á., & Sitnikova, M. (2018). Seeing the world in black or white: The Dark Triad traits and dichotomous thinking. Personality and Individual Differences, 120, 102-106.
Rochat, P. (2020). Moral acrobatics: How we avoid ethical ambiguity by thinking in Black and White. Oxford University Press.
Sanivarapu, S. (2015). Black & white thinking: A cognitive distortion. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 57(1), 94. doi: https://doi.org/10.4103%2F0019-5545.148535
Stewart, G., & Mika, C. (2018). Unsettling Binaries of Knowledge, Culture and Education. Knowledge Cultures, 6(2), 7-8.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]