Black-and-White Thinking in Relationships
Updated: Feb 20
Written and researched by Daphne Ly, UNSW psychology undergraduate completing an internship at Inlight Psychology.
Edited and co-authored by Dr Liza Chervonsky, Director and Principal Clinical Psychologist at Inlight Psychology.
Every human being can think in absolutes.
Unhealthy people are bad and healthy people are good.
If they text me back it means they like me, but if they don’t then they hate me.
These thoughts may look familiar to you, whether you recognise them in yourself or notice others speaking in this way. This is known as black-and-white thinking and refers to thinking in extremes without considering the greys or middle ground. Common black-and-white judgments include “good”/“bad”, “love”/ “hate” or “right”/“wrong”. This way of thinking might be helpful when having to make quick decisions, but it also makes us more likely to make the wrong judgments, especially when it comes to judging other people.
A Black-and-White Perception of Others
A black-and-white approach to evaluating others means seeing others as entirely “good” or “bad”, with difficulty holding in mind both the positive and negative attributes of someone at once. It can also involve having unrealistically high expectations of others, which inevitably leads to people “failing” in this expectation. This in turn may cause the black-and-white thinker much disappointment, despair, frustration, and anger. This sort of thinking can also lead to a very unstable views of others, as they continue to oscillate in their impression of others.
Take this scenario for example: Anne decides to go on a date with Caleb, someone she met online. Upon their first meeting, she finds that they really click. Caleb is smart, funny, and attentive. He’s the “perfect” person with no red flags. She’s eager to see him again and arranges a second date. As she waits for him to arrive, she checks the time and realises it’s been about 10 minutes since she arrived. She gets a text from Caleb saying he’s gotten stuck in traffic, and that he’ll be there shortly. She starts to get irritated. She can’t believe he left her waiting here! Disregarding her previous experience, she starts questioning his moral character and his personality. When Caleb arrives, profusely apologising for his tardiness, Anne still can’t see him in the same way as before and decides she no longer wants to pursue this relationship.
How did Anne exhibit black-and-white thinking with Caleb? Anne thought Caleb was “perfect” after one meeting, however, when he showed a different side of him, her view of him flipped quite drastically. This inability to consider the multiple aspects of Caleb’s personality and to take into account contextual factors, is a great example of black-and-white and rigid thinking.
How Do We Develop Unhelpful Black-and-White Thinking?
Black-and-white thinking is developmentally appropriate during infancy. Children have difficulty holding contradictory thoughts or feelings in their mind and find it hard to understand that a middle ground exists. As people grow older, they are able to think in more complex and nuanced ways. This includes the ability to form a stable, coherent view of others, meaning people can have positive, negative and neutral traits at the same time. This skill does continue to vary into adulthood, with some people maintaining a tendency to think in more black-or-white and polarising ways.
People may also find that when they are feeling more emotional or distressed, they are also more prone to black-and-white thinking. In turn, black-and-white thinking can also cause more distress. Given this cycle, it may not be surprising that black-and-white thinking is common in people experiencing anxiety, depression, and relationship difficulties. It is also present in certain personality disorders, one being borderline personality disorder (BPD). In BPD, people often have the tendency to alternate between idealisation and devaluation of others. They may often report loving their partner one moment, and then being filled with hatred and rage towards them in another moment.
How Can We Manage Black-and-White Thinking?
There are several strategies that are aimed at decreasing black and white thinking.
Increasing awareness of your own thoughts is an important first step in changing your way of thinking. Look out for polarising words like “always”, “never”, “perfect”, “terrible” when you’re describing someone or something else. This sort of language often indicates that you may be thinking in black-and-white.
Practising naming the “greys” in a situation may also be helpful. For example, in the thought “if they text me back then they like me, but if they don’t then they are completely disinterested in me”, a middle ground may be “they might be busy right now, let’s give it a bit more time”.
Practise flexibility in thinking by naming other possibilities. For example, if you find yourself thinking in extremes (e.g. this person is stupid), ask yourself what are some other possibilities? (e.g. this person is just quiet today, this person isn’t focused on this conversation right now, this person doesn’t know the answer to this question but has shown quite a bit of intelligence in other areas, this person may not have the knowledge in this area, etc)
Finally, reflect on your beliefs. Are they rigid or flexible? Are there many “shoulds” or unrealistic expectations? Do you expect perfection in yourself or others? Try to review your beliefs and whether they are making you more prone to black-and-white thinking.
Although black-and-white thinking allows us to make definitive choices, many situations require open-mindedness to understand other people and perspectives. The next time you may think things are only “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong”, remember that it might not be as black-and-white as it seems.
INLIGHT PSYCHOLOGY | BONDI JUNCTION
If you are struggling with black-and-white thinking, or wish to speak further to someone about any psychological difficulties or concerns, Inlight Psychology is here to help. The clinic is situated in the heart of Bondi Junction, with large rooms and beautiful views. We have a lovely team of warm and compassionate psychologists, all with tertiary qualifications in Clinical Psychology.
If you would like to learn more about the team at Inlight Psychology, click here.
If you would like to book an appointment, please don’t hesitate to contact Inlight Psychology on (02) 8320 0566 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
INTERNSHIPS AT INLIGHT PSYCHOLOGY
Inlight Psychology provides a unique opportunity for undergraduate psychology students to complete an internship at the Bondi Junction clinic. Students develop their research and writing skills and gain direct exposure to working in a clinical setting. Students also receive mentorship and guidance, and advice on how to navigate their career path towards becoming a clinical psychologist. If you are interested in this internship opportunity, please email email@example.com
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association.
Berlin, S. (1990). Dichotomous and complex thinking. The Social Service Review (Chicago), 64(1), 46–59. https://doi.org/10.1086/603741
Blass, R. B. (2015). Conceptualizing splitting: On the different meanings of splitting and their implications for the understanding of the person and the analytic process. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 96(1), 123–139. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-8315.12326
Bonfá-Araujo, B., Oshio, A. and Hauck-Filho, N. (2022), Seeing things in black-and-white: A scoping review on dichotomous thinking style. Japanese Psychological Research. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpr.12328
Margoni, F., & Surian, L. (2016). Explaining the U-Shaped Development of Intent-Based Moral Judgments. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00219
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford Publications.