How to overcome black-and-white thinking and how it can be overcome

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: What black-and-white thinking is, its effects, and how critical thinking can help overcome it

Always, never, impossible, perfect – if you hear these words in conversation, you might be engaging in or experiencing black-and-white thinking. This type of thinking is also known as splitting or polarised thinking. It is considered a cognitive distortion as it keeps us from seeing the world in all the shades between black and white.

We hear a lot about the polarisation of society nowadays. We read about social media algorithms, which limit users’ exposure to counter-attitudinal news, and the creation of echo chambers as individuals select and read the information that follows their system of beliefs, sharing it further with friends who they know hold similar views. These factors can lead to an increase in the polarisation of opinions.

This polarisation and black-and-white thinking can lead to intergroup attitudes and behaviours, creating an ‘us versus them’ mentality. The more involved we are within our group, the more we share these polarised views and engage with them, the more negative we become about the ‘Others’, and the less willing we become to explore alternative perspectives.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that black-and-white thinking is closely linked with intergroup discrimination, the feeling of moral righteousness of ‘our’ side, and conflict. Conflict escalates rapidly when complex assessments of a situation are bypassed, with people content focusing on the black-and-white positions surrounding a problem. 

This can lead to groups pursuing a strategy of ‘winning at all costs’, irrespective of the risks involved or the long-term or permanent damage done to their relationships. These conflict-aggravating behaviours might seem rational from the perspective of the party engaging in them when in reality, they are anything but rational.

The cost for black-and-white thinking is not just experienced in intergroup relations. At the intrapersonal level, research demonstrates that black-and-white thinking is also at the core of rigid beliefs, also known as irrational beliefs. These beliefs do not allow us to adapt to reality in terms of actions and our emotional reactions, leading instead to catastrophising and uncontrollable emotions. Depression and anxiety are well-known by-products of long-term polarised thinking, and anger or helplessness often short-term consequences.

But all is not lost. There is a simple, although not easy, remedy to black-and-white thinking: critical thinking.

Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue to form a measured judgement. For example, we can think critically by forcing ourselves to stay within the discomfort of a situation and choose to expose ourselves to all relevant aspects of a problem.

We can also try to look at a problem from more than one perspective, listening and hearing all the relevant voices in a situation. Good habits to practice are empathising, taking the perspective of the people you are listening to, and stopping ourselves when we make a decision to check our reasoning for biases and errors. Organisations can facilitate a workplace that allows this type of critical thinking by fostering psychologically safe environments where people can speak up and voice different opinions, making room for larger, more complex discussions.

We should also try to remove unnecessary time pressures within organisations. Placing time pressures on decision-making can cause individuals to feel pressured to come up with a solution to a problem quickly. At the end of a short, scheduled meeting, you get asked, “Are we doing this or are we not doing this?” – it’s not necessarily useful to only have two options on the table. We need to think beyond the black-and-white and think outside the box by considering multiple alternatives when looking for solutions, not just the two obvious choices.

Of course, there are moments when you have to make quick decisions, but some organisations behave as if every decision is life or death. However, many problems require a solution based on complex discussion – you can’t schedule half an hour for everything.

Many jump to solutions so fast and discuss in terms of looking for a solution. In DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), we usually target the D because it is the observable one. And we often do so through targets or quotas.

People then start taking absolute positions for or against these quotas, and soon they become more and more polarised in defending or criticising this solution, without ever questioning how we come to have this problem, what underlying issues we have that quotas won’t solve, why do we even think diversity is valuable for our company (and which kind of diversity), how do we make sure our selection and promotion practices are equitable, and overall, do we create work atmospheres where difference is respected and valued.

When it comes to DEI work, we need to move away from ‘us vs them’ intergroup dynamics involving stereotypes and prejudice. Intergroup prejudice and discrimination involve an element of ‘all the others are the same’ and use simple mental shortcuts to portray that sameness. Critical thinking moves one beyond these mental shortcuts. 

There are some direct actions that individuals can use to implement critical thinking in DEI work:

  • Catch yourself before using generalisations such as ‘you always…’, ‘all [insert social category] are [insert stereotype]’. Challenge your thinking by trying to find counterexamples. This way, you can overcome the bias of system one thinking; thinking that is automatic, fast, and relies on oversimplification.

  • Use ‘the rule of three’. Our cognitive systems gear into action when forced to go beyond two alternatives, views, or interpretations. Whenever you think about a person’s actions and try to interpret them, force yourself to come up with three alternatives. The first one is the one that expresses your worldview and mindset; the second is often a stereotype; as of the third, your mind switches from automatic processes to more elaborate ones – you actually start thinking about the issue critically and intentionally.

  • Catch your own cognitive biases. The easiest way is by observing the errors in thinking others make, as we are generally excellent critics of others. Then apply the same process to yourself as an external observer – play a game of ‘detectives’ with your mind to bypass the defensive tendencies.

  • Notice when your emotional (or physical) reactions are disproportionate to the incident. It’s okay to get angry, but we all notice when the magnitude of our reaction isn’t warranted by the actual reality. In such moments, take a timeout and start playing the detective game: what is really going on with you? What stories from the past got triggered by the situation? What interpretations? As you perform this cognitive exercise, you will notice that your emotional and physical reactions also tend to calm down. You can get back to being a rational, thinking human being.

If we do not check and correct our black-and-white thinking, then we will be stuck within the space of viewing matters in grossly oversimplified terms, scapegoating others, refusing to engage with the uncomfortable parts of reality (and minimise or ignore them), and discount voices from marginalised or minority groups.

Critical thinking does not mean engaging in political correctness, diluting one stance, relativising everything, or not taking a moral stand. It just means making a judgement or assuming a moral position that is not driven by passion or quick judgements but by practising what humanity prides itself on: rational and complex thinking in the face of a complex, nuanced reality.

By: Smaranda Boros, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School

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