Black and White Thinking doesn't Work in a Gray World

Our political leadership has been at its best when those leaders have dared to enter into the world of gray.
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To see the world in black and white is to live within the contours of extremism. This outlook neatly divides the world into right versus wrong, good versus evil, and yes versus no.

This thinking is dependent upon such words as always and never. Especially in times of crisis, the black and white worldview is looked upon as strength and courage to the casual observer.

Black and white thinking makes up a good portion of American cinema. It does not require much analysis to determine who is the "good guy" and who is the "bad guy."

John Wayne, who is an American icon, made millions portraying himself in myriad roles as a clear thinking man of action. Wayne, the character, was definitely a man who had little use for nuance; and once a decision was made that was it.

America's ongoing struggle with race is usually summed up in black and white terms. Though appearing to be the best choice in the short term, black and white thinking can bring about long-term negative consequences.

The problem with black and white thinking is that it usually does battle in a world that is nuanced and gray.

Cognitive analysis begins in black and white terms, this is how children learn to use words and organize their thoughts. How many parents have provided their seven-year-old with a rule, only to later alter the decree ever so slightly and have the child retort with: "But you said?" In the world of Developmental Psychology this is called primitive thinking.

As adults, we are prone to primitive thinking during moments of crisis and stress. Mark Sichel, author and psychotherapist, writes, "When the adult starts relying on the words "always" or "never," and seeing the world in black and white terms, they are slipping back to the way they saw the world as a child."

In the world of black and white we can become overwhelmed with the desire to find "the" answer. This is why church attendance grew across the country immediately following 9/11--folks looking for an answer, trying to understand the "why" question.

For all of the obvious short- term reasons to embrace black and white thinking, there is definite a downside.

Not only does black and white thinking show little appreciation for the world of gray it has even less for the concept of self-reflection. To self-reflect, especially after a decision has been made, could open one to the possibility of being wrong--which defeats the purpose of black and white thinking. Many psychologists maintain that black and white thinking actually exasperates mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Black and white thinking is also flawed because it inherently assumes a static world. It is dependent upon everything and everyone maintaining the role that such thinking has already preordained.

There is little regard for the human condition that does not correspond to its beliefs, because black and white thinking is rooted more toward the generic than the situational. Failure becomes harder to confront because one tends to place an inordinate amount of energy being right. It is an unfortunate default against the complexities of the world.

Our political leadership has been at its best when those leaders have dared to enter into the world of gray. Imagine how America would be different had Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt maintained black and white thinking throughout their respective wars. Their greatness today is not measured simply by the end result but also by their ability to adapt in lieu of unsuspected challenges--some by their own making.

It requires far less courage to live in the black and white than it does to live in the gray. The world of gray requires that we show up and be present. It does not afford us the luxury of putting life on automatic pilot.

Moreover, black and white thinking, though it may provide momentary comfort, is simply unrealistic to sustain. After all, even black and white photos come with their own varying shades of gray.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist.
E-mail him at or leave a message at (510) 208-6417. Send a letter to the editor to

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