The Delusion of Black and White Thinking


Us vs. Them, Good vs. Bad, Liberal vs. Conservative. In our increasingly polarized world, many of us see things in black and white, blind to all the shades of gray. We are designed to see things this way; our brains have an instinct for categorization. Without this instinct, we could not function, but the brain’s desire to simplify our increasingly complex world is creating division.  Black and white thinking is creating delusion.

With a brain that loves black and white, in a world that draws us to its loud extremes, gray is becoming endangered color. We don’t have the time to ponder the nuances of the grayscale, so we jump to black or white. But gray is the color of wisdom, it has the power to unite opposite poles and illuminate all that lies between. We all need more gray in our lives.

The Categorization Instinct

Imagine what it would be like if our brains didn’t categorize things. Every object we encountered would be a new discovery.  “What does this do?” “Will this explode?” “Will this animal hurt me?”

Our brain’s ability to categorize allows us to navigate the world, quickly assessing the things we encounter, freeing up our brain for more novel things.  Without it, the world would be a chaotic and overwhelming place.

We begin categorizing as soon as we are born, and as we develop, we begin to see the world in more specific categories.  Trees become conifers and evergreens; dogs become pit bulls and chihuahuas.  We go from being wary of every unfamiliar person, to being able to put people into categories based on their likelihood of being a threat to us.

In a world that is throwing massive quantities of information at us, how do we manage all this shifting and sorting?

I Am Sure….?

One way that we cope with the onslaught of things to sort through, is by broadening our categories. Quick to notice patterns, we compartmentalize, keeping it all in neat files in the cabinet that is our brain.  We don’t like when those files get dumped out and we don’t like having information that is “un-fileable.” In other words, to personally varying degrees, our brains crave certainty and order. We like things that quickly and easily fit into our categorization system.

In his book “Black and White Thinking,” Kevin Dutton says:

“We are drawn, involuntarily and inexorably, to prominent, fully formed, and incontrovertibly heaped conclusions.  With potentially disastrous consequences.  The world of our ancestors may well have been black and white. But the color of now is grey.  We draw lines to create contrast because it is through the stark juxtaposition of contrast that we see.  But the greater the contrast the lesser the finer-grained detail. And the lesser the detail, the greater the potential for ignorance and errors.”

How is the brain’s drive to categorize distorting our vision of reality?

The Delusion

As humans, we tend to want to eliminate that which frightens or confuses us or causes us pain; physical or emotional. We want to feel safe, and we want to feel sure. It is easier to ignore all the gray, but this is what leads to the ignorance and errors Dutton is referring to.

Black and white thinking allows us to live under the delusion that we have all the answers to life when we really don’t. Black and white thinkers tend to look for what feels sure, rather than what is true. This is the driver for confirmation bias, where we seek out information that aligns closely with the views we already hold. We focus on the things that confirm the correctness of the classifications of things housed within our files.

On one extreme, this causes us to live in a world that is a psychologically comfortable illusion, and on the other extreme it causes us to actively hide, squash, hurt or kill things that make us question our file categories. Somewhere in the middle is the place where we manipulate, distort, and spin the things that upend our boxes to make them appear as if everything still fits. This is where a lot of us are living. All because we can’t cope with the uncertainty that our categories might be wrong. Living under an illusion is viewed as easier than re-doing the filing system.

Moving Towards Gray

So we have established that our brains are wired to think in black and white and that they crave certainty. We have also established that categorization enables us to function in the world. That instinct served our ancestors well, but our increasingly complex and information-rich lives demand that we move towards more nuanced thinking or else live under an illusion of certainty.  We are experiencing the results of ignoring the shades of gray, and it is becoming more apparent that many of us are living in a black and white delusion. So, what do we do about it? How do we shift a brain bent on categorizing and certainty?

Accept that everything lies on a continuum

Merriam-Webster’s definition of continuum is: a coherent whole characterized as a collection, sequence, or progression of values or elements varying by minute degrees “good” and “bad.”  It can take some substantial deprogramming to realize that life is all grey; that all reality lies on a continuum.

Without shades of gray thinking, the distance between good and bad, right and wrong, is just too far apart. When you view everything on a continuum, it is easy to allow new information to shift you slightly to a lighter or darker side. This allows you to evolve your opinion as you become more informed.

Become comfortable with uncertainty

Gray is the color of wisdom. According to the research on wisdom; being comfortable with uncertainty is one of the traits of wise people. Seeing the world in shades of gray allows us to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. The truth is, we know relatively little.

Gray is the color of “both-and” thinking. This is the ability to embrace complexity and even paradox, which is a key ingredient for reducing polarization and transforming extremes into a unified continuum.

See complexity as women do

One study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that when categorizing objects as either “part of” “not part of” or “somewhat part of” a given category, men were more likely to assert that objects were totally in or out of a category, while women were more in favor of “somewhat.” Women were just as confident with their answers, being absolutely sure that the answers were complex as the men were sure they were simple.

Erring on the side of “this may be more complex than I know” is a wise place to be.


Just say “I don’t know”

One theory used to explain the gender difference in the categorization study is that men are socialized to have clear and confident knowledge about the world. They are expected to make assertive judgment calls and therefore are less comfortable saying “I don’t know” (which reminds me of the stereotype about men never stopping to ask for directions). But women are often uncomfortable admitting to ignorance too, even though ALL of us prefer an honest answer over egoic BS.

Be less dramatic

Part of the reason black and white thinking is so appealing is that the contrast of black and white catches attention.  With so many things out there to capture one’s attention, drama can feel necessary in order to be heard. We tend to speak in ways that catch others’ attention, unaware that the way that we speak can have a profound impact on the way that we think.

For example, if your boss pulled you aside to mention that they were a little disappointed with the outcome of a project you worked on, you might come home and declare to your partner that your boss hates you and that you are probably going to get fired. You might not actually believe that to be true, but your real feelings (anytime I get negative feedback from my boss I feel insecure), are not that interesting. Plus, making your boss out to be the bad guy, means you don’t have to take responsibility for your work.

Repetitive dramatic declarations such as this are contributing to black and white thinking because they get us in the habit of framing everything as good and bad. Critical feedback means I am bad at my job- no wonder my boss hates me. This way of thinking perpetuates illusions because it obscures the truth.

Stop using absolute words

Words like “never” and “always” are rarely true.  We all know how the use of these words can negatively affect our relationships.  “You always forget to take the trash out” leads to an argument because the other person will then point out all the times that they remembered to take the trash out. Always is an illusion– often is more true.

Be an explorer

Consider the way in which an explorer might navigate a new situation. Explorers have the goal of understanding the world around them, not controlling it. They are driven by curiosity.

This shift in perspective allows us to look at all information as adding to our knowledge; even when it doesn’t fit into what we already know.  Being an explorer requires one to be comfortable with uncertainty.

Some of the greatest discoveries have come from open-ended exploration, not from trying to solve a specific problem or cause a certain outcome. If you have a hypothesis, try to prove it wrong. Try to find flaws in your filing system.

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Gray is the new black

Counteracting the brain’s desire to fit our experiences into neat boxes sounds hard to overcome, but it just takes practice.  It is all about noticing the things we have overlooked in the past.  This noticing is what allows us to really see. As our perspectives become more finely tuned and our vision more acute, we will move towards shattering the illusion that is black and white thinking.  We will see what is really there to see, not just the label on the box where we chose to file it away.

“Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.” ~Rumi

Thanks for reading ❤

With Gratitude,

Aimee O’Neil LLMSW

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Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Aimee O'Neil LLMSW

Founder of Wisdom Cultivators

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