Cognitive Distortion: How Does Black-and-White Thinking Hurt Us?
“How are you?” asked one of my co-workers as I walked into the office this morning.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m exhausted. How are you?”
And I can’t remember how she answered that question because I was too busy thinking about what I’d just told her about being exhausted. Was I really exhausted? Not so much, I determined, after a little more thought. I was a bit sleepy, maybe, but I’d gotten eight hours of sleep. Why did I tell her I was exhausted?
Okay, grab a paper & pen. Give this little challenge a try: below, you’ll find several pairs of opposites. Some of them are grade-school simple; some are a little more complex. However, these are words that you probably use on a daily basis. Here’s the challenge: write down each of the below pair of opposites on a piece of paper. Then, write down a word — a SINGLE word — that accurately describes the middle ground between the pair of opposites.
Example: hot and cold. A good answer here would be “warm”, “lukewarm”, or “temperate”.
Ready? Promise not to scroll down until you complete this entire activity? Good. Okay, here we go:
1. black and white
2. large and small
3. up and down
4. left and right
5. fast and slow
6. easy and hard
7. young and old
8. loud and quiet
9. good and bad
10. near and far
11. pass and fail
12. happy and sad
13. clean and dirty
14. shy and outgoing
15. calm and anxious
Got your list? Alright, take a good look at all of the words you’ve written down. Do they have anything in common? If your list is anything like mine, all of the “middle ground” words are similar in a way: they’re all a bit muddy and bland. Let’s go over some possible answers: obviously, the color “gray” falls between black and white, and I’ll bet you wrote that one down. Where are you if you’re not left nor right? Well, you’re “moderate” or in the “center”. If you’re not young or old, perhaps you’re “middle-aged”. What if you’re buying a shirt and it’s not small or large? It’s probably a medium.
Medium, middle-aged, moderate, average, gray. Maybe you even wrote the words “normal”, “so-so”, or “average” on your paper. Most writers try to avoid using these words & other gray-colored language altogether. (Unless they’re, um, writing a blog entry about those very words.)
Did you have trouble nearing the end of the activity? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I couldn’t find any way to describe the middle ground between “shy and outgoing” or “calm and anxious” with a single word. Or even with a bunch of words. There’s no convenient word or phrase in the English language, it seems, to describe the middle ground between several sets of the polar opposites listed above. How does this deficiency of the English language harm us?
Take a look at the word list again. How often do you use words like “happy and sad”? You’ve probably uttered most of them today without even realizing it. After all, simplifying our stories for others with polar words like “sad”, “bad”, and “far” is convenient. It’s easier for a student to lament that his or her research paper is “far” from being completed (especially if they’re seeking empathy) than to get into the details of exactly how much is done and how much is left to write. And we’re all guilty of watching a movie or reading the news and calling someone “the bad guy” — it sounds a lot more poignant than qualifying your statement & balancing it with a list of their positive attributes. Resorting to polar words (in cases where a middle-ground word would more accurately describe the situation) can change the truth of the situation that we are describing.
Each of the above pairs of opposites (and many, many more) can induce dichotomous thinking. It’s commonly referred to as “black and white” thinking and it can have negative effects on the way we see ourselves or the situations that we are using language to describe.
Back to my morning conversation with my co-worker: I told her I was exhausted, but it wasn’t a truthful statement. It’s not like I meant to lie to her. I mean, why would I lie about my level of tiredness? There’s no good reason for that. What I did do was unconsciously utilize dichotomous language. I exaggerated my own feelings of sleepiness.
I’ll face it; I like being descriptive. And “exhausted” packs more of a verbal punch than words like “sleepy” and “drowsy.” But again, using dichotomous language boosts dichotomous thinking, and the latter is a type of cognitive distortion that can negatively influence the way you feel about yourself. If you’re dealing with anxiety, casual usage of extremely polar words can lead you to magnify thoughts and events through a distorted lens that can ultimately make you more anxious.
Here’s a classic example: “I think I totally failed my math test.” The word “fail” falls at the polar end of the pass/fail continuum. If you find yourself saying or thinking something similar, stop. Step out of your brain for a second and engage in some meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking. How’d you come to the conclusion that you failed? Maybe you didn’t pass, but are you sure that you failed? Might your performance have fallen somewhere in the middle of pass and fail?
Luckily, in academia, there are letter grades from A through F that can break down the continuum a bit & help you to avoid dichotomous thinking. But in other contexts, it’s not so easy: Let’s say you tell a friend that you’re feeling anxious. Perhaps you’re certain that you’re not calm, but how far from calm are you? Are you truly anxious — with a racing heart, rapid breathing, and sweaty palms — or are you somewhere in the middle of calm and anxious?
How can you decrease your black and white thinking? The answer is pretty simple: remember to add shades of gray.
There’s no good word to describe the middle ground in the above scenario with anxiety — not one that I can think of, at least — but if you can coin one, use it. Or, try using a number scale to describe where you fall on the calm/anxious continuum. If the worst anxiety you’ve ever felt is a 10, perhaps public speaking is only a 7 and thinking about a deadline at work is a 5.
Try to catch yourself using this type of black-and-white thinking for the next few days. Jot down the situation in which you used an exaggerated word; then, take a step back, assess your word choice, and improve your story with a gray-colored word. You’re turning 40 today and you just called yourself old. How true is this? Do you know anyone who is older? Might you simply be middle-aged? You told yourself today that you’re shy; but, are you only shy in a particular situation? Where do you fall on the shyness scale of 1 to 10?
Catching yourself using dichotomous thinking (and correcting yourself) can transform an unrealistic thought into a more truthful (and probably less stress-inducing) one. Unglamorous adjectives like “middle-aged” or “in-between” and low-impact phrases like “moderately shy” probably won’t win you any grand literary awards, but they do stand a good chance at helping you view the world through a more accurate lens.
Beretsky, S. (2009). Cognitive Distortion: How Does Black-and-White Thinking Hurt Us?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 4, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/05/18/cognitive-distortion-how-does-black-and-white-thinking-hurt-us/