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


Black and White Thinking — 3 Comments

  1. “it isn’t grey between the black and white. It was all the colors of the rainbow. I like that.” I like it too. Thank you for sharing that Lee Marsh!

  2. Several years ago I went against everything the society said about psychiatrists and counselors. In one year I finally split up with my 21 year abusive husband, I had to sell my home. I changed employers. My two daughters both married and left home. My, dad, who I loved dearly died unexpectedly at the age of 62. I was a mess. The brothers and sisters in the congregation told me my husband just had mental issues. (They had never met him) I finally went to a counselor that my medical Dr. referred me to. It helped me so much. The one main thing that has stuck with me the past almost 30 years is when she said to me nothing in life is always right or wrong, yes or no. You have to weigh the circumstances. YOU are the only one that knows all sides of everything. You make the choice that you felt was the best choice…..not right or wrong choice. You live with it. Rejoice in it and go on to the next issue.

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