Black and white thinking is the tendency to think in extremes: I am a brilliant success, or I am an utter failure. My boyfriend is an angel or He’s the Devil incarnate.
This thought pattern, which the American Psychological Association also calls dichotomous or polarized thinking, is considered a cognitive distortion because it keeps us from seeing the world as it often is: complex, nuanced, and full of all the shades in between.
An all-or-nothing mindset doesn’t allow us to find the middle ground. And let’s face it: There’s a reason most people don’t live on Everest or in the Mariana Trench. It’s hard to sustain life at those extremes.
Most of us engage in dichotomous thinking from time to time. In fact, some experts think this pattern may have its origins in human survival — our fight or flight response.
But if thinking in black and white becomes a habit, it can hurt your physical and mental health, sabotage your career, and cause upheaval in your relationships.
Here’s how to recognize polarized thoughts, what they could be telling you about your health, and what you can do to develop a more balanced outlook.
Certain words can alert you that your thoughts are becoming extreme.
These words aren’t bad in themselves, of course, but if you notice that they keep coming up in your thoughts and conversations, it could be a signal that you’ve adopted a black and white perspective on something.
It can harm your relationships
Relationships happen between individuals, whether they see each other as family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, or something else entirely.
And because people have ups and downs (to phrase it dichotomously), plus quirks and inconsistencies, conflicts inevitably arise.
If we approach normal conflicts with dichotomous thinking, we’ll probably draw the wrong conclusions about other people, and we’ll miss opportunities to negotiate and compromise.
Worse still, black and white thinking can cause us to suddenly move people from the “good guy” category to the “bad guy” category, to quit jobs or fire people, to break up, or otherwise avoid genuine resolution of the issues.
Dichotomous thinking often vacillates between idealizing and devaluing others. Being in a relationship with someone who thinks in extremes can be really difficult because of the repeated cycles of emotional upheaval.
It can keep you from learning
I’m bad at math. Most math teachers hear this proclamation over and over during the school year.
It’s the product of a success or failure mindset, which is a natural outgrowth of a grading system that defines failure (scores of 0–59) as over half the grading scale. Some courses even have a simple binary to measure learning: pass or fail. One or the other.
It’s all too easy to fall into dichotomous thinking about your academic accomplishments.
A growth mindset, which is becoming increasingly popular, encourages students to recognize incremental progress toward mastery — to see themselves moving closer to being able to do what they have set out to do.
It can limit your career
Dichotomous thinking makes and sticks to rigidly defined categories: My job. Their job. My role. Their role. In many collaborative work environments where roles shift, expand, and re-form, having rigid limits can keep you and the organization from achieving goals.
Black and white thinking can also limit how you think of your career prospects.
During the 2008 financial crisis, many people lost jobs they’d held for a long time. Whole sectors slowed or stopped hiring. The crisis forced people to look expansively at their skill sets, rather than clinging fiercely to a rigid idea of what they could do.
Thinking of your career as fixed and narrowly defined could foreclose possibilities you might find enriching, literally and figuratively speaking.
It can disrupt healthy eating habits
Black and white thinking can cause people to look at certain foods as good or bad, to look at their own bodies as either perfect or revolting, and to eat in binge-purge, all-or-nothing cycles.
Researchers have also found that dichotomous thinking can lead people to create rigid dietary restraints, which can make it hard to maintain a healthy relationship with food.
Some black and white thinking is normal, but persistent dichotomous thought patterns are associated with a number of conditions.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a condition that causes an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a deep need for attention, and a profound lack of empathy for others.
Black and white thinking is one of the symptoms of this personality disorder.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
The National Institutes of Mental Health describe BPD as a mental illness that causes people to “experience intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety.”
People with BPD usually have problems controlling impulses, they often experience black and white thinking, and they may struggle with interpersonal relationships.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Dichotomous thinking makes it possible for people to maintain a rigid perfectionism, and that can make it harder to get help.
If a person has a setback, it would be easy to see that as a total failure of therapy instead of viewing it as a momentary hiccup in the overall progression.
Anxiety and depression
People who are vulnerable to anxiety and depression may have a tendency to think in absolutes.
One study that examined the natural speech of people with anxiety and depression found much more frequent use of “absolutist” language among them than in control groups.
All-or-nothing thinking can also cause us to ruminate, which can worsen anxiety or depression.
It’s also worth noting that
Racism and homophobia
Psychologists think dichotomous thinking may be at the root of some of our most persistent social divisions. Racist, transphobic, and homophobic idealists often fixate on “in” groups and “out” groups in society.
They may project negative qualities almost exclusively on the “out” group, using negative stereotypes to describe the members of those groups who they believe are unlike themselves.
Although personality disorders and mental health conditions are sometimes genetic, there isn’t enough research to say conclusively that black and white thinking itself is inherited. It has, however, been linked to childhood or adult trauma.
Researchers think that when we experience trauma, we may develop dichotomous thinking patterns as a coping strategy or to try to protect ourselves from future harm.
Black and white thinking can really make things difficult for you personally and professionally, and has been linked to mental health conditions that are treatable.
For these reasons, it’s important to talk to a therapist or mental health professional if you notice that thinking in extremes is affecting your health, relationships, or mood.
You may want to work with someone who is trained in
You may also find it helpful to try some of these methods:
- Try to separate what you do from who you are. When we equate our performance on a single metric with our overall worth, we’re going to become vulnerable to black and white thinking.
- Try listing options. If black and white thinking has you locked into only two outcomes or possibilities, as an exercise, write down as many other options as you can imagine. If you’re having trouble getting started, try coming up with three alternatives at first.
- Practice reality reminders. When you feel paralyzed by black and white thinking, say or write small factual statements like There are several ways I can solve this problem, or I’ll make a better decision if I take time to get more information, and Both of us may be partially right.
- Find out what other people think. Black and white thinking can keep you from seeing things from someone else’s perspective. When you’re in conflict with someone, calmly ask clarifying questions so you can come to a clear understanding of their viewpoint.
Black and white thinking is a tendency to think in extremes. While it’s normal from time to time, developing a pattern of dichotomous thinking can interfere with your health, relationships, and career.
It’s associated with anxiety, depression, and a number of personality disorders, so if you find yourself hampered by thinking in black and white, it’s important to talk to a therapist.
A therapist can help you to learn some strategies to gradually change this thought pattern and live a healthier, more fulfilling life.