Embracing Ambiguity: Avoiding the Trap of Black or White Thinking

In today’s internet-mediated world, where social media can too often serve as an echo chamber filled with polarizing and extremist opinions, it’s almost too easy to fall into the trap of black or white thinking. Black or white thinking, (aka all-or-nothing thinking), is a type of cognitive distortion that causes us to view ourselves and others in extreme ways, while paying short shrift to the subtleties or nuance of the situation.  

There is an alluring sense of simplicity that black or white thinking provides.  Reliance on black or white thinking is a type of cognitive shortcut that allows us to quickly render a verdict so that we can make rapid-fire decisions without expending too much mental energy.  We might be especially prone to relying on black or white thinking when we are feeling short on time or are running low on mental or emotional resources.  Though it is natural to employ the use of black or white thinking at these times, overreliance on black or white thinking as a cognitive strategy can give rise to perceived limitations of self and others and can result in failures in empathy.  Taken together, these potential pitfalls of black or white thinking can limit our opportunities for self-growth and actualization.

For example, black or white thinking can interfere with our significant relationships by causing us to view people as either all good or all bad, while overlooking the fact that people are complicated beings who tend to encompass both positive and negative traits. For example, if you get into an argument with a friend, you may be tempted to label them as “wrong,” and yourself as “right”, thereby disregarding the nuances of the situation.  These all or nothing labels often get applied not only to our significant others, but also to ourselves.  If we receive praise at work we may deem ourselves “a success” whereas one small setback at work may lead us to conclude that we must be “a failure.”  These types of negative self-appraisals can be limiting and demoralizing.  

Sometimes we can find ourselves at risk for making rash or hasty decisions based on black or white thinking.  For example, concluding that your friend was “wrong” or “bad” based on an argument you two had, like in the aforementioned example, might cause you to make a rash decision to end the friendship without examining the subtleties of the situation or trying to see things from your friend’s point of view.  

On a global scale, black or white thinking can fuel discrimination by creating an “Us versus Them” mentality when it comes to assessing groups of people who we view as different from ourselves.  Often these assessments are based on flimsy evidence and limited information that can give rise to hatred as well as to more subtle forms of prejudice.  When we view complex issues related to religion, race, nationality, or politics through this circumscribed lens of black or white thinking we fail to account for the complexities and nuances of the situation; this can, in turn, perpetuate conflicts and add fuel to the fire. 

So how do we recognize when we are falling into the black or white thinking trap?  One valuable indicator is the language that we use when describing ourselves and others.  If you find yourself frequently using words like “always,” “never,” “failure,” “perfect”, “terrible,” “impossible,” etc. this could be a sign that you are relying too much on the use of black or white thinking.  While nothing is inherently wrong with these words, frequent use of these types of words can suggest that you might be relying too much on black and white thinking to organize your inner world and the way that you perceive situations.  If you are currently in therapy, a skilled clinician can also help to raise your awareness around this issue and to call attention to occasions when you may be inadvertently falling into the black or white thinking trap.

Okay, so what if you have realized that you tend to overly rely on black or white thinking? What should you do about it?  Not to fear — there are several strategies that can be used to challenge black or white thinking (or that can help you avoid falling into the trap to begin with!)  One strategy is employing mindfulness.  When practicing mindfulness, simply notice the thoughts and feelings that arise without judging or labeling these thoughts as feelings as either inherently “good” or “bad.”  By practicing the art of simply observing our thoughts and feelings, we can gradually improve our tolerance for ambiguity and break the habit of continuously sorting and labeling our thoughts and feelings in extreme ways that obscure complexity and nuance.  

Aside from practicing mindfulness, it can also be useful to challenge your own assumptions at times and to ask yourself if there might not be another angle from which to view things.  Don’t accept your feelings as fact.  And don’t hesitate to seek out other, diverse, perspectives on a given situation to help inoculate yourself against all-or nothing thinking.  Seeking out alternative perspectives can broaden our worldview and can help bring the various shades of gray into greater relief.  

Lastly, if you still find yourself struggling to break out of the cycle of all-or-nothing thinking (and are seeing negative consequences as a result), you might want to consider consulting with a therapist.  There are many strategies out there that can be tailored to your individual needs so that you may embark on more fulfilling relationships and gain confidence in your decision-making processes.


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