September 25

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Beyond Black-and-White Thinking: Actually, Life is 50 Shades of Grey

When I was a teenager, the black-and-white-thinking of Lord of the Rings fascinated me. What’s not to love about a heroic quest that results in an eventual triumph over the dark side?

While the conflict of good against evil makes for good fiction, it doesn’t make for useful life advice in most situations.

Case in point: right now, many societies are becoming more polarized. 

This is especially true in the United States which has been polarizing faster than other democracies in the last 40 years. According to a study, 

“negative feelings toward members of the other party compared to one’s own party increased by an average of 4.8 points per decade.”


When polarization increases, different factions of society engage in something called “splitting” (more on that in a moment).

A visualization of splitting (black and white thinking)

Basically, each faction sees themselves as the heroic Fellowship of the Ring that is in grave peril — and others as the evil Sauron.

When reality is perceived in that way, communication becomes impossible. After all, what good would come out of starting a diplomatic exchange with Sauron?

When engaging with stories, I’ve recently become more interested in trying to get the perspective of those who are portrayed as evil, for instance, Mordred in the Arthurian legend.

I've also enjoyed stories that show both the hero(es) and antagonist(s) in more complex ways, such as The Last Jedi or Battlestar Galactica. 

Funnily enough, the story often looks quite different from the perspective of the antagonist.

Here's what I realized about black-and-white thinking:

Life is not black and white. Reality is 50, or rather, 100.000 shades of grey, not Lord of the Rings.

Reality isn't black and white

Problems arise when shades of grey are perceived as black and white.

When we see the world through a black-and-white lens, we can imagine ourselves as the squeaky-clean hero, conveniently forgetting our own shortcomings that we should work on… or the ways in which the other side is perhaps not quite as awful as we think.

Splitting (or black-and-white thinking) is a wide-spread defense mechanism, consisting of the failure to bring good and bad aspects of oneself or others into a realistic whole.

Splitting has a number of negative consequences. For instance, it can damage relationships, hurt your self-image, or stop you from being in a growth mindset. 

Culturally, I also think that it exacerbates problems caused by polarization. Not only can it lead people to see reality inaccurately, it also doesn't solve anything.

After all, if someone tried to tell you that you’re evil incarnate, it would hardly make you willing to hear them out, right?

As Thomas Oppong advises:

“Instead, listen carefully, pay attention, be curious about their ideas, and tell them all the ways they’re right, before guiding them to realize they’re wrong on their own. You have to help them move past their own perspectives, beliefs, and biases. Show them what they may not be aware of.”

Thomas Oppong

(While this approach can work with your friend, it probably wouldn’t have worked with Sauron. Which is actually a good thing because adult ways of handling conflict don’t make for very interesting entertainment.)

Here’s how to practically apply this in your life to reduce black-and-white thinking:

To apply the advice Thomas Oppong gave above, you first need to move out of black-and-white thinking yourself.

How am I seeing this as black and white? For instance: “I think I’m completely right and that my friend is nuts.”

How is seeing this as black and white actually detrimental to my goals? For instance: “My friend and I are just getting angrier and angrier at each other and he’s not even listening to my arguments.”

What is the other side right about? For instance: “I guess my friend has a point about me not taking economic aspects into account.”


The takeaway

By asking yourself the questions I mentioned above, you can reduce black-and-white thinking, embrace both/and thinking and see the situation more realistically.

Abandoning a black-and-white perspective doesn’t mean that there are no moral differences between different individuals or sides. After all, there’s a lot of variability between the first shade of grey… and the 100.000th.

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While the Fellowship of the Rings wasn’t without flaws, I’m glad they prevailed.

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