The literature on black and white thinking often carries some confusion about the explanation of what it is. Or more correctly what are the underlying psychological causes that result in a person displaying this childlike type of thinking. There can be seen to be two different causes of black and white thinking. In reading the general literature one will often see the author confuse these two different causes and present them as one.
Gothic. A bodily manifestation black and white thinking?
What is black and white thinking
Black and white thinking is the ability to see the world in a black and white way with no shades of grey. The thinking tends to be polarised where the individual views things in absolutes. There are good people and bad people. There is right and wrong, good and evil and there are winners and losers. The black and white thinker sees others and the world in this way and does not see the in-between. Non black and white thinking knows that most people are not good and bad but people have some good points and some bad points and that all people are OK and it is only their behaviour that is good or bad. The black and white thinker cannot understand this.
1. Normal human development
Children have black and white thinking as a part of normal human development. Adults have it as well but it is less easy to identify in most instances. The development of ego states explains why this is so. Black and white thinking is pre logical thinking that is found in the A1 or Little Professor ego state. The logical thinking of the Adult ego state realises that many things in life are not black and white but there are many shades of grey in-between or it not as simple as black and white thinking sees it to be.
A young child only has the A1 ego state to think about the world and what happens. it does not have a fully grown Adult ego state (or Parent ego state). This means the child is capable of only black and white thinking or at least cannot understand many of the shades of grey or complexities in life. Most people in adulthood have a fully developed Adult ego state and therefore are capable of seeing the world in its complexities. they can see the shades of grey and appreciate that many things are not as simple as black and white. However whilst mature adult thinking is like this we also never loose our A1, black and white thinking.
We don’t change how we think as we grow, we only add a new type of thinking (Adult ego state (A2)) but we also always retain our old pre logical thinking (A1) as well. The A1 ego state does not suddenly disappear when we develop our A2 Adult ego state . Instead we end up with two different Adult (A1 & A2) ways of thinking. In adulthood, how successful we are at doing A2 and not A1 thinking varies from person to person and situation to situation.
For example the more stress we are put under the more we revert to our childhood ways of functioning and that includes our childhood ways of thinking. Hence, in domestic arguments when husband and wife are under stress, A1 or black and white thinking can start to come out and dominate the A2 thinking. When that happens the husband and wife start to become childish in their comments and the logic they are putting forth. Needless to say not much gets resolved. That can only happen when they both calm down and can have a reasoned (A2) discussion later on.
2. Resulting from abnormal development
It is well know that a common feature of the borderline personality is black and white thinking. This person finds it especially difficult to keep their A2 thinking dominant in their everyday functioning. But it is not because they revert to A1 thinking. Instead the Borderline uses the defence mechanism of splitting. They are seen to split the Child ego state into good and bad which allows them to see the world as all good or all bad. They can view one family member as all good and another as all bad. Or they may see self as all good in one instance and then a little later see self as all bad. This only occurs in a small number of individuals where as number one above occurs in all people.