Do you ever catch yourself thinking in terms of ‘all or nothing’? Do you feel sometimes that there is no middle ground and only extreme language can convey your emotions? If you’ve said things like “This is the worst day of my life” or “This relationship is the best thing that could happen to me”, you’re engaging in dichotomous or black and white thinking.

These examples of black and white thinking demonstrate that we have a tendency to fall into polarized thinking i.e., thinking in extremes. The disposition to view the world in black and white can have a profound effect on our relationships and personal health. So, what is black and white thinking and how do we stop ourselves from thinking in extremes?

What Is Dichotomous Thinking?

Black and white thinking prevents us from seeing the complexities and nuances that lie between the two extremes of the thinking spectrum. This all-or-nothing mindset prevents us from seeking balanced solutions in the middle ground. 

This sort of dichotomous thinking is rooted in one of the survival patterns of humans—the flight-or-fight response. In other words, we’re inclined towards thinking in binaries. Our instinct is to simplify things at the cost of overlooking the nuance. That is why we need to actively work to guard against the polarities in our thinking. If we let it become a habit, it has the potential to sabotage our careers,  in addition to affecting our health and relationships.

The next time you catch yourself thinking in binaries, take a step back and analyze things from an objective point of view. 

Here’s a checklist of common words associated with black and white thinking:

  • Always

  • Never

  • Impossible

  • Perfect

  • Furious

  • Disastrous

  • Ruined

Why Challenge Dichotomous Thinking?

The impact of black and white thinking can be quite severe. It may cause us to fall into toxic patterns that we may struggle to get rid of. Let’s look at these examples of black and white thinking that could potentially complicate our daily lives: 

1. We tend to hold ourselves to really high standards and become hard on ourselves. Being overly self-critical can limit our abilities and ambition. 

2. We fail to understand the people closest to us. They’re either good or bad in our eyes. Our expectations from them are very high and rigid.

3. We become extra sensitive to criticism and can’t seem to wrap our heads around our mistakes. Even constructive criticism begins to look like a personal attack.

4. We find it challenging to stick with assignments and don’t want to commit to anything long-term. We keep second-guessing ourselves because even the slightest inconvenience looks like a major blunder.

5. Professionally, we are quick to abandon tasks because every obstacle feels like evidence of failure. We dread the process and quit before we reach our goals.

How To Overcome Dichotomous Thinking

Here are some ways to help steer away from your extreme thoughts:

1. Challenge Your Assumptions

Before you start drawing a mental picture and jump to conclusions, take a step back to introspect. Ask yourself if what you’re thinking is true or not. Challenge your polarized thoughts and ask yourself for proof. For example, if you think that your loved one has wronged you, don’t label them as ‘bad’. Analyze the situation objectively before you let your assumptions ruin your relationship with them. 

2. Revisit Your Language

Using absolute words is a sign of black and white thinking. Binary terms change the way we feel, perceive, and respond to things. For example, telling yourself “I couldn’t do my best today” instead of “This is the worst performance of my life” improves your sense of balance. It will become easier for you to bounce back from difficulty.

3. Ask For Second Opinions

If dichotomous thinking has you locked into only two possibilities, then ask for someone else’s perspective. If you can step into someone else’s shoes momentarily, you can consider other viewpoints on the same situation. For example, if you have a conflict at the workplace, listen to your coworker respectfully before you present your arguments.

As humans, we’re bound to feel paralyzed by black and white thinking but we must remember that it can be controlled. When in doubt, remember the wise words of the famous physicist Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. 

Harappa Education’s Thinking Critically course helps develop your critical thinking abilities and avoid black and white thinking. Sign up now to learn about various mental models to think clearly and objectively.


Explore topics & skills such as the Cognitive SkillsHow to Improve Cognitive SkillsCognitive Bias & the Theories of Intelligence from our Harappa Diaries blog section.

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