The Rotten Habit of Black and White Thinking

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The Rotten Habit of Black and White Thinking 1
Black and white thinking makes asses of us. Image by 1691628 from Pixabay

When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU¹, I usually come up with the same answer: immigration. Brexiteers see immigration as an evil that is ruining the country, bombarded by childish memes that their thickheaded friends share on social media, and electrified by a shocking reel of Sun headlines that cattle-prodded them to the polls. They’re unable to comprehend the complexities of EU membership (few can), and cast their vote based on their racism, like frightened dogs yapping to protect themselves from the terror of the non-white hoards trying to find a better life.

Entertaining as it might be, this profile of a typical Brexiteer is untrue, falling victim to the same simplistic danger as it criticises. To make sense of something as chaotic and important as the vote of a Brexiteer, it’s much easier to discard subtlety and reduce it down to a single argument. When people ask me why 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU, I don’t consider a Brexiteer’s other potential reasons like economic regulation, trade, and sovereignty, I just choose the easiest and most common way to define them: immigration. To make sense of the carnage of Brexit, I pigeonhole 52% of the British population.

This is a common response when we’re faced with something important and complex. We feel an obligation to pick a side, but don’t want to do the research needed to better understand the situation, or people’s motives. So we simplify it down to something that resonates with us; something that we do understand, which doesn’t wobble us with cognitive dissonance, and protects our delicate egos. We engage in black and white thinking, forgoing our intelligence and becoming the very people we’re criticising.

Black and white thinking is bad for a number of reasons.

We make bad choices

We need an accurate understanding of the world to make good choices for ourselves, and for the people around us. But it’s a complicated place, and we’re all so busy, so when important events come along like Brexit, an election, or a political movement, we often get a shallow overview rather diving deep, because we’re lazy and don’t care enough to put the time in.

Continuing with the example of Brexit, if I were to make an informed decision about which way to vote, I might need to do the following:

  • Find out Britain’s immigration policies, and their economic implications
  • Find out how EU membership benefits British trade
  • Understand the government’s proposed human rights policies
  • Find out how much sovereignty Britain has as an EU member

…and much more, preferably from sources with little bias. Even if I did just one of those things, I’d be better informed and able to cast a vote that made more sense for the British people. But most people can’t be bothered, instead choosing one of a million mindless entertainments that the Internet is suffocating us with.

When we surrender to our laziness, we shrink complex issues down to a single emotional factor, ignoring all shades of grey. Our point of view is visceral, rather than grounded in fact, resulting in a bad choice that doesn’t reflect reality. Some of these choices will be innocuous, while others will tarnish our lives and the lives of our countrymen.

It’s also possible to go the other way and be a perpetual fence-sitter, despite having delved into the details of an issue. The challenge is knowing when you’ve done enough research to form a confident opinion. And if you’ve haven’t researched at all, you don’t need to pick a side.

We become stupid

When we engage in black and white thinking, we’re making a conscious choice to ignore potentially important information, and so we make fools of ourselves. The shades of grey are waiting to be discovered by those who want a more accurate and nuanced point of view, which is more difficult and time-consuming to obtain, but has the potential to make you smarter and better informed.

As we simplify an issue over and over again, casting aside all other possibilities and refusing to look deeper, we strengthen the neurons in our brains for the idea, until we become stubborn buffoons who find it impossible to perceive it in any other way. We habituate ourselves to a single simplistic assumption, and squash all creativity for the issue. We ignore nuance, and so we become dimwits.

Shaky confidence

“Black and white thinking masks itself in the disguise of certainty, and certainty feels good in an uncertain world.”

Dr. Christine Bradstreet

Black and white thinking does wonders for our confidence. It’s easier to settle on a point of view when we’ve limited the possibilities, allowing us to say “I’m right about this” with confidence. But you’re not right, you’ve just narrowed your scope, and when someone comes along with contradictory facts, your easily-won confidence is shown to be delicate as a spring daisy. Some people change their point of view when this happens, but many remain stubborn to protect their confidence/ego, and cling even harder to their daft perspective, like an intractable Flat Earther.

Simplifying the chaos of the world may fill us with self-assured certainty, but it builds a feeble confidence that can be shattered by someone willing to look deeper. Forming an opinion without looking into the details isn’t the act of a decisive leader; it’s the deed of a prosaic bootlicker.

We become predictable and boring

Rupert Murdoch’s monstrous web of media companies are an exemplar of black and white thinking. If you get your news from Murdoch, you’re in danger of becoming narrow-minded, cynical, and tedious. The primary goal of these kinds of media is to generate as strong an emotional response as possible, preferably a negative one, so that you purchase their newspapers and engage with their shows. They may harbour journalistic values and attempt to report accurately, but it’s often spun into something emotional that’ll draw you in. When you’ve spent decades reading a newspaper with headlines like YOU PAY FOR ROMA GYPSY PALACES and ‘MUSLIM CONVERT’ BEHEADS WOMAN IN GARDEN, you’re going to have trouble realising that not all Romanian Gypsies or Muslims are evil.

To have any chance of being an interesting, well-informed person, you need to delve into the details, question the validity of what you’re consuming, and engage with a variety of sources. Otherwise you risk becoming a frightened, obnoxious Fox watcher, whose imbecilic ideas are defined by sensationalism and outrage—black and white thinking that is easy to fall into if we allow ourselves.

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As a species, we have a strong tendency to simplify complexity, so that we can understand. It’s easier to call a Brexiteer a racist than to understand his full rationale, and in this act of black and white thinking, we diminish our humanity and intelligence. To be smart, confident, engaging, and a good decision-maker, the shades of grey are where we’ll spend our time, refusing to fall into the rotten habit of black and white thinking.

References

  1. EU Referendum Results,” BBC News

Stop mocking stupid people

No stupid people beyond this point sign

1_ZlARZfqv1GrsBKLu5ZGZBwPhoto by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Humans are diverse, and it’s a magnificent thing. Our inconsequential blue and green planet, tiny against the backdrop of an unfathomable universe, is a marvel of spectacular variety; a multi-threaded stream of colour and light, bound up in a ball of swirling, bubbling energy. The divergent nature of the universe, and the creatures within it, is what makes it beautiful and endlessly surprising.

Human intelligence is also diverse. The mind of a genius appears to travel at light speed, effortlessly skipping from one creative galaxy to the next, while at the other end of the scale, a slower person might struggle to understand a simple everyday problem. One has been blessed, and the other cursed; their natural born abilities are not of their own making. So why do people living in the West treat a lack of intelligence with such appalling ridicule and disdain? Even the most morally-inclined among us don’t hesitate to declare somebody stupid, attacking something that the target has little control over. It’s tantamount to mocking somebody for the colour of their skin, or their sex.

We can, of course, make ourselves smarter. It’s wonderful that we’re able to work hard and improve our capabilities, but this is only possible for the privileged among us. Not everyone has access to good schools and education, or an upbringing that develops a passion to pursue them. The link between poverty and educational performance makes it almost impossible for a poor person lacking in natural intelligence to stand a chance in today’s world, while the fortunate stand on the sidelines and throw rotten vegetables at them, as punishment for something completely outside of their control.

In addition to being regularly mocked, less intelligent people have an increased chance of suffering from mental illness, obesity, and heart disease. They’re also more likely to end up in prison, being drawn towards violence as a likely consequence of being derided their entire lives. It’s said that you can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its elderly. The same could be said for those lacking in intelligence.

Both Theresa May and Donald Trump are supporters of a meritocratic society, the notion that those with merit deserve to climb the economic hierarchy. The idea is similar in many ways to the American Dream – work hard, and you can succeed. Gone are the days of a stale and worn-out aristocracy; advancement is open to all, regardless of the family that you were born into. But this seemingly valuable system has a dark side – if those who succeed have done so by their own merit, then those who have failed only have themselves to blame. They are, in a meritocratic society, operating within the same system as the winners, and therefore owe their low position to their own stupidity. This kind of system just serves to place poorer and less intelligent people even lower on the economic scale, while instilling the mistaken idea that they have the exact same opportunities as wealthier, smarter people. Expectations are inflated, and inevitable heartbreak ensues. Egalitarianism, while undeniably good, must respect differing intelligences and the natural hierarchies that come out of that. Capitalism relies on less intelligent people to carry out lower paid jobs.

The concept of intelligence is also a lot murkier than one might think. American psychologist Howard Gardener believes that there’s nine different types of intelligence, including interpersonal, musical, spatial, and existential. The divide isn’t between numbers and language, as many people suppose. A mechanic might be terrible at reading Shakespeare (linguistic), but an absolute gun at putting an engine together (spatial and bodily-kinesthetic). That doesn’t make the mechanic more stupid than the scholar, they just have a different skill set, and have probably chosen the careers appropriate to them. Research shows that sophisticated reasoning depends on the situation – someone can be a dunce in the stock market, and a genius at the racetrack, even though they require similar types of thinking. Stupidity isn’t black and white.

Perhaps most importantly, intelligence doesn’t equate to worth. Someone with fewer brain cells than most could be brimming with kindness, honesty and loyalty, and deserves to be treated with just as much patience and respect as everyone else. We must curb our frustration and develop a more compassionate mindset, reminding ourselves that not everyone was fortunate to be blessed with dazzling brilliance. The misinformed aren’t necessarily stupid, they just haven’t learned yet. The next time a misguided soul irritates you, remember that you may once have been in their position.

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