Black and White Thinking

One of the characteristics of mind control, whether it exists within an abusive relationship between two people or in a cultic group, is “black and white thinking”.

Black and white thinking means seeing the world only in terms of extremes, with no middle ground. Things are portrayed as either great or terrible, right or wrong, good or evil. Everything in life is portrayed as extreme opposites. Rules dominate this kind of thinking. There is no room for circumstance that may bring color to the experience.

We tend to talk to young children in very simple either/or terms; black and white thinking. Their minds are not yet structured to be able to handle a wide variety of choices. Keeping it simple is a help to them. But as a child grows, the mind develops greater ability to handle information and choices.

In times of stress people will often revert to the simple thinking of childhood. This is normal. When stressed it can become difficult to think clearly about a variety of options. High stress families, or dysfunctional families, often use black and white thinking for most of their communications. So does the Watchtower Society.

Once the black and white thinking from childhood has been triggered it becomes very easy to manipulate an adult as if they were a child. If you address some one as a child, especially if they are stressed, they will most likely respond as a child does. This would, of course, explain why mature thinking adults who are under a degree of stress in their lives might be more susceptible to the hooks presented by cults.

As many of us recognize, life as a Jehovah’s Witness is stressful. There are constant demands to do more and little commendation for work well done. Keeping a person in this stressful state reinforces the child-like behavior of easy acceptance of what is told, without question.

Black and white thinking can easily be recognized by the words it uses: all or nothing, always and never, good or bad, nobody and everybody. Everything is absolutes. Rules govern all situations with no exceptions. Most often these rules are externally imposed and have nothing to do with the personal choices that mature adults are capable of making.

Black and white thinking occurs when an argument only allows two options, even though there may be more. The reason for this strategy is to exclude the other options because they fall into an undesirable broad category – the gray area.

The argument takes a false position, without considering qualifications, middle ground, compromises, or alternative positions. Black and white thinking provides two extreme options without giving thought to other possibilities. The fallacy of black and white thinking mimics sound reasoning by process of elimination (everything except the two extremes is eliminated), but it eliminates too much. It places options out of consideration before they have truly been considered.

Reasoning by process of elimination is good reasoning if it includes many possibilities. When you learn to recognize the shades of gray, or even better all the colorful possibilities, in your experiences, you will be better able to make sound decisions. 

It takes a lot of time and effort to change this way of thinking. However, with work we can improve in this area. I have found, though, that simply being aware that I do this type of thinking is a big step in changing it.

  • Notice what you’re doing and how you’re thinking. Once you recognize what you’re thinking it’s a bit easier to figure out how to change it.
  • Listen to what people you trust have to say. They often see us in a different way than we can see ourselves. Their input can be valuable to help us judge where we are on the spectrum of black and white thinking.
  • Ask when you are not sure if you understood something you read or were told. Don’t ASS-U-ME. Get clarification so you have the information you need to evaluate your responses and decisions.
  • Ask yourself whether there are other options.
  • Sit and write out your thoughts about what is happening to see if you are caught up in the black and white thinking. Read it over and look for those opposite words (or only one side) Change the black and white thinking to add some shades of grey or color, compromises and other options

A few years ago, a client said to me that she discovered it wasn’t grey between the black and white. It was all the colors of the rainbow. I like that.

Discover your rainbows

Baptism of Children: The Issue of Consent

The issue of whether a person has consented to a particular action is a core part of our social relationships whether they are personal or group interactions. To participate in any social relationship a person must on some level consent to that participation. For consent to occur a person must know what it is they are consenting to and must have true freedom to say yes or no. Unless both of these criteria are present and valid true consent cannot occur.

For example, for a person to “consent” to joining a group they must be fully aware of the rules of the group. Non-disclosure of the rules before the consent is given would be fraudulent on the part of the group and would therefore make any implied “consent” invalid. This is true in all legal contracts whether written or verbal. Both parties must clearly have stated what they are consenting to before the contract is valid. Withholding information vital to the contract invalidates it. However, if all the articles of the contract are clearly spelled out and one party refuses to read the articles, often referred to as “the fine print,” then that refusal is taken that full acceptance of the contract is valid.

A point can be made about children and the issue of consent. In some cases, children can and do ‘consent” to certain relationships. A boy may get a job as a paperboy. He is instructed on the rules of the job and the compensation for his work. Many children fulfill this type of contract responsibly.

But in our society legal experts agree that children do not have a legal right to make certain contracts. Due to the lack of maturity and knowledge inherent in being a child, giving “consent” would not fulfill the two criteria required for that consent to be valid.

In regards to a child giving consent to joining a religion such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), as a full member, this issue becomes very important. Can children fulfill the conditions of full membership in the JWs?

Even if full disclosure was given to the adults who join the JWs (which they are not given), it is clear that children cannot. Children lack the information necessary to make an “informed” decision about the matter. They are ignorant about how adult contracts are made and enforced. More important, they are generally unaware of the social meanings of religious commitment. For example, they are unlikely to be aware of the rules and regulations surrounding religious expectations – what they are supposed to signify. They are uniformed and inexperienced about what criteria to use in judging the acceptability of any religion except the JWs. Children most often agree to certain behaviors out of fear or loyalty or a desire to please the adults in their lives or just to be one of the crowd. This would preclude the issue of freedom and therefore invalidate the contract. And finally, children have little way of knowing how other people will react to the experience they are about to undertake – what likely consequences it will have for them in the future.

In discussing the issue of consent, social psychologist David Finkelhor states, “For another thing, a child does not have the freedom to say yes or no. This is true in a legal sense and also in a psychological sense. In a legal sense, a child is under the authority of an adult and has no free will. In a more important psychological sense, children have a hard time saying “no” to adults, who control all kinds of resources that are essential to them. Food, money, freedom all lie in adult hands. In this sense, the child is like a prisoner who volunteers to be a research subject. The child has no freedom in which to consider the choice.” In a desire to please the adults around him or her, the child makes a decision based on wrong motives and inaccurate knowledge.

The basic proposition here is that child baptism is wrong because the fundamental conditions of consent cannot prevail in the relationship between a religion and a child. “It adds a moral dimension to the empirical one” (Finkelhor). Even if it could be shown that in many cases children were helped by religion affiliation, one could still argue that the baptism was wrong because children could not consent. The wrongness is not contingent upon the evidence of a positive or negative outcome.

Due in part to the emotions that religious affiliations create, we know that these relationships often come into conflict with other kinds of roles and social responsibilities. This conflict becomes apparent, for example, when Witnesses forbid certain social or scholastic activities with their peers.

Growing up in a Witness family brings a certain social stigma to a child. People in our society react with both alarm and prejudice toward a child who has been involved with the Witnesses even after the child grows up. This stigma may be unfair, but it does exist, and it is unfair of adults who wish it didn’t, to inflict such stigma on children, who cannot be fully cognizant of its existence. Finkelhor states, “To rear a child in a stigmatized status cannot be considered a crime in and of itself, or else we would have to support laws to make it a crime to bring up a child to believe in communism.” It is however, morally harmful to the child.

The reality is that few adults are fully informed of the rules and regulations until after they have been baptized. There is a clear set of rules for those who are not baptized and a much stricter set of rules for those who have been baptized. To allow a child to submit to this double-standard without a clear explanation of what that standard is would be fraudulent.

Children also would not be fully able to consent to such an issue because their minds are still developing. What a child wants at 10 or 11 is very different from what they want at 15 or 18. For a child to give consent at a younger age when his or her brain is not even developed enough to understand certain concepts, which can only occur at a later developmental stage, is absurd. To hold this child to his or her “consent” would be immoral.

Coping & Learning to Thrive after Being Shunned

What do you do when close family members and friends shun you, because you no longer believe as they do? It is particularly challenging, when the shunning has been mandated by a predatory pseudo-religious group, like Watchtower. And especially onerous if you were born into the high-control group.

Unfortunately, mandated shunning is being experienced by thousands of former Jehovah’s Witnesses today.

That is why I am so excited about shouting out praises for Bonnie Zieman’s new, ground-breaking book, SHUNNED: A Survival Guide, which is exclusively devoted to educating the reader on how to cope and learn to thrive after being shunned:

If you are currently being shunned, are contemplating being ostracized in the near future, know someone who is being abused with this inhumane practice, or just curious about this nasty form of emotional blackmail, Bonnie’s book is a must-read.

Three highlights of the book, at least for me, are:

What not to do when being shunned
How to deal with people who shun you
How to manage the worst effects of shunning


The Pivot of Control

The PIVOT of CONTROL is when it happens: When you go from an interested observer of a group with a so-called “no agenda” to being unduly influenced and manipulated. It only takes watching the first 5-minutes of this video to help you understand the concept.

After watching 5 minutes of the video, can you describe the moment, and dynamics, when one moves from being an observer of the Jehovah’s Witness experience to becoming a Jehovah’s Witness?

Hopelessly Stuck in the Victim Mode?

I often ask former JWs if they know what group is worse than Jehovah’s Witnesses. It generally takes two or three guesses before the person gives up. When I tell them it is: ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, they smile and appear to get it.

Why is that?

Because many ex-JWs are hopelessly stuck in the victim mode, even many long years after they have left the black-and-white world. They spend way too much time playing the “whose fault it is” game, instead of taking responsibility. What are they going to do about the reality that they have been in a cult, yes, in a long-term abusive relationship?

It’s not always easy and many ex-JWs would benefit from time well-spent with a qualified therapist or counselor, who understands how cults unduly influence its members. A good reminder to the fact that it is our responsibility, the following short-and-sweet video by Will Smith is a classic wake-up call.

How are People Manipulated?

Skilled manipulators, be it a person or a pseudo-religious organization, know how to get people to do what they want them to do. One such manipulator made the following claim:

“Making people do what I want is the easiest thing in the world. All it takes is:
1) Make them think we have something special and everyone else is deluded; and/or
2) Make them think they are not doing enough; and/or
3) Threaten to take their family away.”

Do you know any person or group that uses any or all of these techniques to unduly influence people?