- Engaging in dichotomous thinking inhibits recognition and acknowledgment of nuances in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- All-or-nothing thinking carries negativity bias that can prime people for anger arousal.
- All-or-nothing thinking leads to labeling others without seeing their uniqueness. It contributes to demonization of the "other."
- There are specific strategies we can practice to attend to the greater complexity of others, the world in general, and ourselves.
All-or-nothing or “black or white” thinking is a cognitive distortion that involves thinking in absolutes. This form of thinking is reflected in statements such as, “If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure,” “She never listens to me,” “Those people always behave that way.” Such thinking is often reflected by the use of other superlatives, including “worst,” “everyone,” or “everything.”
Such dichotomous thinking is defined by global perception rather than attention to the details of our observations. Consequently, it interferes with our accurate perception of others, the world in general, and ourselves. In relationships, it entails a failure to recognize and acknowledge the nuances in others' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Dichotomous thinking can, at times, be useful
Such thinking offers a shorthand strategy for information processing. It may be beneficial to respond to the proliferation of information continually expanding on the news and social media. Such thinking affords us the feeling of understanding our very complex world, without the challenge of greater attention and reflection. After all, all or nothing thinking makes it easy to form snap judgments about politics, individuals, science, religion, or any other area of human concern.
Some psychologists believe that dichotomous thinking derives from the evolutionary need for early humans to see things in a binary manner, as being safe or threatening (Gilbert, 1998). They needed to differentiate whether or not they were truly in danger quickly. And since life during those times was far more threatening than today, the ability to make snap decisions was life-saving.
Black and White Thinking and Anger
However, while it can sometimes be useful, it comes with a negativity bias, a general tendency to view threats even when there may not be one. As suggested by not psychologist Rick Hanson, “We are Velcro for negativity and Teflon for positivity” (Hanson, 2009). Consequently, like cognitive distortions in general, all-or-nothing thinking has a powerful potential to fuel anger—as well as depression and anxiety.
Instead of viewing a situation as partially negative or challenging, all-or-nothing thinking intensifies the negative potential impact of the situation. “I’m feeling criticized right now,” may quickly morph into, “You always criticize me.” “I made a mistake” may be distorted by the conclusion, “I’ll never be able to do this!” It’s one thing to generalize or speak from hyperbole; it’s another when this perspective becomes the automatic lens through which we view all experience.
Dichotomous thinking can contribute to conflict and anger in all of our relationships. Our failure to attend to the unique details of others makes it more likely that we experience them more as we conclude them to be rather than as they really are. Thinking in absolutes is conducive to exaggerate the negative aspects of a loved one. Similarly, it can sensitize us to experience threat from the slightest criticism by a friend or co-worker. This is especially true when we have issues with shame or feelings of inadequacy that predispose us to feel vulnerable rather than safe, even in our most loving relationship.
And while dichotomous thinking may predispose us to anger, anger itself can prime us for dichotomous thinking. Since anger stems from a perceived threat, it can constrict our emotional and cognitive flexibility to consider a broader perspective.
Our own failure to recognize and embrace the grays in our self makes us vulnerable to self-directed anger. This occurs as all-or-nothing thinking is very much embedded in perfectionism that evaluates mistakes as failures. It is the underlying mechanism that, with or without full awareness, leads us to conclude, “If I’m not perfect, I must be a failure.” This can result from failing to live up to expectations regarding any endeavor, whether engaged in a diet, a creative endeavor, mastering learning, or a task at work. As such, black or white thinking can undermine a career and inhibit creativity, pleasure, and healthy habits.
The Role of All-or-Nothing Thinking in Anger Toward Others
We conclude they are all alike, whether concerning politics, religion, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. All-or-nothing thinking may lead to a global assessment of others. When motivated by the threat of difference coupled with such thinking, it becomes easy to adopt all kinds of global perspectives and fail to attend to the other as a unique individual.
When doing so, it is easy to understand how negative stereotypes of these groups can be strengthened. Fueled with fear, such perspectives may more readily lead to anger, demonization, and even hate. Demonizing others exemplifies an intensely destructive form of all-or-nothing thinking. This vantage can easily lead to dehumanization, a complete lack of empathy that can allow for and even justify harmful behavior as a preemptive way of reducing the threat. In effect, such distortion entails the dangerous reactivity to one’s own distorted thoughts.
How to Correct For The Influence of All-or-Nothing Thinking
As revealed by our understanding of neuroplasticity, we know that the more often we have these thoughts, the more we train our brain to become prone to evoke them. In effect, the more we engage in such thinking, the more we may develop trait anger, an ongoing tendency for anger arousal. The challenge to reducing such thought patterns calls for cultivating new habits of thinking and feeling. These include the following:
- Cultivate your attention to recognize when you think in absolute terms, whether using superlatives or making assessments that fail to attend to the complexity of the situation or person. Then look for shades of gray in the details of that situation or person.
- Identify examples of situations in which your absolutist thinking does not apply. This may initially feel uncomfortable because it requires that you actually create and live with some self-doubt.
- Remember that contrary to what we believe, we are not completely unified in our motivations. We have all kinds of thoughts and feelings that stem from motivations that are mixed or even ambivalent. For example, we may believe in working hard while another part of us would really like to spend more time playing.
- Remember that being human means you make mistakes and have flaws. Do not let your mistakes define you.
- Keep a gratitude journal or begin the day with a gratitude moment. These are both ways to help counter the negativity bias in our thinking.
- Savor the good in your life, the little things you can notice throughout the day, including your success at sub-tasks related to your larger goal.
- Challenge the knee-jerk conclusions you make and question whether there are other perspectives you have not considered.
- Cultivate a curiosity better to understand the behaviors and motivation of others and yourself.
- Cultivate anger management strategies with special attention to your quickness to engage in all-or-nothing thinking.
Being unaware of engaging in all-or-nothing thinking can potentially hold us hostage to greater anger arousal. The capacity to recognize such thinking offers us a moment to pause rather than react to such arousal. It is also a moment to choose to grow into a person who can cultivate greater understanding and compassion for others and oneself.
Hanson, R. (2009) Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Gilbert, P. (1998). The evolved basis and adaptive functions of cognitive distortions. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 71, 447-463.