The flaw behind black-and-white thinking is that it does not reflect the complexity of human nature and the world around us. Most people are not absolutely good or evil. Most events in life have more intricate shades of color than simply black and white.
Black-and–white thinking stems from our reptilian brain, which makes snap decisions as to what’s safe or dangerous in order for us to survive an immediate physical threat. When this ancient part of the brain is triggered, it overrides the reasoning and problem-solving abilities we’ve developed through evolution.
Some people raised to be black-and-white thinkers remain stuck in a world where people and events are viewed in simplistic terms of extremes. Even people who are complex thinkers regress to pigeonholing when they are stressed or overwhelmed by emotions. Unless patterns of fear are counter balanced, they will prevent people from moving beyond this “primitive thinking” to more nuanced and sophisticated thinking.
As a result of viewing the world as black and white, people suffer unnecessary disappointment that can lead to exasperation and depression. For instance, fantasizing about a perfect world with a perfect mate can lead to shattered expectations, and the opposite idea that there aren’t ANY decent men or women at all.
Here are some ways to avoid the pitfalls and heartbreaks of black-and-white thinking:
1. Have realistic expectations: Even though optimism is generally a nice trait, tone down feelings of overblown optimism and expectations about specific people or situations.
2. Sometimes, somewhat: Use words such as “always” and “never” sparingly.
3. Enjoy the complexity: Beware of considering yourself and others as “the best” or “the worst.” The world of absolutes is unrealistic and dull. Find the complexity in any situation or in a person and you may find what’s interesting—and truly beautiful.
4. Look for balance: Look for balance rather than perfection by accepting that humans make mistakes.
5. Be open to mystery: A curious, intelligent, and open mind embraces the known and unknown, the mystery, and the possibility of imagination.
It is not the result of scientific research that ennobles humans and enriches their lives, but the struggle to understand while performing creative and open-minded intellectual work.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD