Right or wrong.
Good or bad.
Winners or losers.
Friend or foe.
With me or against me.
All or nothing.
We all see the world in black and white, at times. But what happens when these kinds of dichotomies become the norm?
Sometimes called “categorical simplicity,” this kind of either/or thinking can rob us of the rich shades of grey in our family relationships, friendships, and work lives, and fundamentally affect our well-being.
To better understand the curiosities, complexities, and concerns of categorical thinking, I turned to the clinical expertise of psychologist Dr. Diana Brecher and educator, writer, and researcher John Hannah for insight into creativity and ideation.
Dichotomies and definitions
Black-and-white, or dichotomous, thinking happens when we reduce experiences, encounters, or events to simple oppositions or binaries. Messiness, subtlety, layers, and context are stripped away.
Simplicity makes sense—sometimes
Given the complexities of our individual lives and communities, as well as within the world at large, it’s no wonder that we can gravitate toward simplistic ways to divide up and make sense of the world. This can help us sort through tiers, contradictions, and nuances.
Simplicity thinking isn’t so simple
It would be wrong to dismiss simplicity thinking outright. As Hannah makes clear, “I don’t summarily disparage so-called black-and-white thinking. It’s a necessary starting point to any thinking. A reduction to simplicity helps make vivid the most obvious things.” Indeed, research indicates that dichotomous thinking may be useful for quick decision making.
The distortions of dichotomizing
While black-and-white thinking makes sense to a point—for ease, brevity, and categorization—if it persists it can also accompany or signify more significant struggles. Brecher points out that “black-and- white thinking is considered one of 10 cognitive distortions that manifest in clients presenting for therapy.”
The distortedness speaks to a disproportionate view—of seeing things in extremes. Experiences become either all good or all bad. When an individual has this propensity for either/or distortions, it can be “rare that they’re able to perceive both sides of an issue—the messy middle,” says Brecher.
That messy middle
What is “grey” thinking then? And given its “messiness,” why is it important? “Grey is about seeing both sides of a problem,” says Brecher. She gives the example of being able to engage in a cost-benefit analysis. This kind of weighing of an issue can “allow truer assessment of the weaknesses, strengths, and likelihood of outcomes.” In other words, grey thinking can support greater balance in appraising a situation or relationship.
If seeing a wider spectrum of textures and possibilities in our interactions and pursuits is so messy, why does dichotomizing come with some dangers? “The dangers of black-and-white thinking are that, for example, if you perceive faults or limitations in every relationship or experience, it can reinforce a pessimistic thinking style,” explains Brecher.
To take this further, bivalent thinking is “most often an inaccurate assessment of the situation.” And, what’s more, a dichotomous worldview, notes Brecher, can “worsen clinical depression.”
Bivalence and behaviour
Recent research also indicates that black-and-white thinking can lead to greater instances of aggression, impulsivity, and hostility. Simply put, binary-based, bivalent thinking can, Brecher says, “give rise to misperceptions and misinterpretations of events.”
Spillovers of simplicity thinking
Those misperceptions and misinterpretations of a dichotomous approach can, unsurprisingly, have negative impacts on our family interactions, friendships, work interactions, and broader community engagements.
In our families, black-and-white thinking can hinder the cultivation of necessary compromises.
In our friendships, this bivalence can lead to unreachable expectations on the one hand, or unfair judgments on the other.
In our work, dichotomizing can damage the necessary harmony for teamwork. In our social encounters, an all-or-nothing view can lead to categorical simplicity, yet people are complex, and don’t easily fall into such categories as smart or stupid and good or bad.
In our community, social, or political lives, binary thinking can lead to harmful oversimplification, reductionism, and even prejudice.
The impacts of black-and-white thinking upon emotional well-being can be significant, explains Brecher. The distorted thinking caused by dichotomizing can also be accompanied by “overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, and jumping to conclusions.”
Through therapeutic interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy, describes Brecher, clients can learn new ways of viewing and moving through distressing situations. Techniques include Socratic question-and-answering and keeping thought records. These can help clients “develop insight into their cognitive distortions and challenge them.”
Break out of black and white
To break free of the black and white and embrace the messiness of grey thinking, Brecher recommends exploring the “rationale and rationalization a client gives themselves for why certain things happen, and test out the accuracy or distortedness.”
The work in therapy is to challenge these distorted cognitions with evidence that the client holds yet is not necessarily actively aware of until brought into their consciousness. It’s like having a blind spot because your car mirrors can’t capture everything behind your car. To deepen the metaphor, she says, cognitive distortions, like black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking, “can be thought of as our very individualized blind spots.”
Black and white holds us back
“The danger is not black-and white-thinking itself, but a failure of imagination,” adds Hannah. “In our zeal for quick solutions, we see the ease of black-and-white thinking as the endpoint, rather than just the necessary starting point in the search for more colour.
“So, we become satisfied with simple questions that lend themselves to the tidy packages of black-and-white answers and we avoid the more difficult, but ultimately more important questions that defy those tidy packages.”
Creativity in compromise
It’s in the grey—sometimes murky, uncategorizable, and full of compromise—that “most of our creativity lies,” says Brecher. “Often creative solutions in our work lives, relationships, and pursuits come out of a daydream, a drifty pondering, arriving at a middle ground, when we’re spacious in our thinking. That’s when we have ‘aha’ moments. Grey areas are crucial for those ‘aha’ moments!”
The power of compromise
Try these tips from psychologist Dr. Diana Brecher if black-and-white thinking is “colouring” your relationships.
- Keep in mind the possible long-term benefits of resolving a conflict. If the relationship is more important than the dispute, consider meeting the other person halfway to maintain the relationship.
- Acknowledge that the other person may have insight into the resolution of a problem that can improve the quality of both of your lives if you’re willing to consider another perspective.
- Remember that a compromise will comprise some, but not all of, your agenda; you may have to give up on other needs at this time.
- Consider the possibility that both people in this situation are doing their best, following their beliefs and values, and have good intentions.
- Being flexible this time around gives you credit the next time you reach an impasse with this person. If you’re in it for the long game, you’ll be setting a tone for mutuality within this relationship.
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