Black and white thinking is a common thinking pattern we all get caught up in now and then.
Black and white thinking happens when our brains quickly polarise a situation, often unconsciously, to a simple black or white, good or bad. It is a survival mechanism we have inherited from our ancestors: we’re safe or RUN!
Politicians and advertisers know how to do this well. To render situations unto simplistic A or B decision. Because they (of course) have an equally simplistic fix to sell us.
As a species we don’t like to work too hard. Understanding and responding to greyness can be so much harder than just considering black or white. It is easier to stir up strong emotions (which interrupts rationality) with black and white thinking.
When we default to black and white thinking as our approach to the world, we are working from a dangerously simplistic (and counter-compassionate) position. Us and them, good and evil; these concepts belong in movies and fiction, not in the reality of rational, emotionally mature adults.
As the world around us become increasingly complex and subtle, black and white thinking can really limit us from seeing things clearly and exploring possibilities fully. We rush into premature judgment, condemnation and dismissal. We close off options, and retreat into “them or us”, “win or lose” fear.
The is great potential in the grey, if we are courageous enough to work for it.
Some examples of black and white thinking in business:
- Fit in or get out.
- Climb the ladder or get out.
- Make more money is the only definition of success.
- We must appeal to everyone or we have failed.
- There is only one way to do something, and one set of experts.
- Business is business…
But it isn’t all bad. Black and white thinking does have its uses.
We can use the power of black and white thinking to reduce complex concepts into simpler models; so as to facilitate understanding, analysis and teaching. We cannot build useful models of reality without rendering the grey into clearer steps if not black or white steps.
We can also use black and white thinking to trigger a flight or fight response, so we can make decisions so and more expensive forward when we get stuck over-thinking a situation. It can help us sort overwhelming options more clearly into yes/no buckets.
True wisdom comes from knowing when to avoid or apply black and white thinking.
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