How Black and White Thinking Limits Living

Black and White Morals

Do younger people see things in black and white terms more often than older people?

A couple days ago, a friend and I were talking about a discussion we’d had with some other folks — folks much younger than either one of us.  The discussion was mostly on morality.  And both my friend and I noticed the younger folks pretty much dealt in moral absolutes.

My friend would offer up a problem, such as whether it was ever right to cheat on your spouse, or whether a woman should ever marry for money.  Some of the answers she got back were conventional; some were unconventional.  But both the conventional and the unconventional answers were usually couched in black and white terms, in moral absolutes.

Almost no one responded with, “It is sometimes right, but there are exceptions”, or “It’s mostly right, but it’s not perfectly right.”

I started pestering our young friends with annoying statements along the lines of, “I know someone who is grateful that his wife cheated on him.  He says it broke up their failed, abusive marriage — which he nevertheless would not have left, had his wife not run off with another man.”  But my examples were simply swallowed by my audience’s absolute certainty that moral matters could always be reduced to straightforward calculations of right vs. wrong or good vs. bad.

Although the discussion was mostly on morality, there was also a similar tendency to see things in black and white terms when it came to other subjects.   For instance, when we discussed gender roles, everyone except my friend and I thought they were fairly static.  For instance, men were either attracted to looks or they were not attracted to looks, but few seemed to think men were sometimes primarily attracted to looks and sometimes primarily attracted to other things.

Why Black and White Thinking?

If it is indeed the case that younger people are more often black and white thinkers than older people, then I suppose that might be because the human brain typically develops an ability to think in terms other than black and white around the ages of 13 to 15.  Thus, for some young people it’s a relatively recent innovation to think “in shades between”, and they might not have had time to fully incorporate that kind of thinking into the ways they look at the world.

Living a Full Life

So far as I know, thinking in black and white terms is not all that conducive to experimentation.  The fewer exceptions you see to the rules, the fewer opportunities you see for experimentation.

Of course, there might be some things you probably do not want to experiment with.  Yet, even ruling out those things, there is plenty in life that should be experimented with.

While there seems to be no standardized program — no syllabus of things everyone should experiment with — I have yet to meet someone of any age, young or old, who could not use a bit of novelty in his or her life.

It is often said that life is an exploration, a journey, rather than a destination.  But for it to be a journey, there must be exploration.  There must be some risk of the unplanned and unexpected.  Otherwise, life would not be a real journey, for you can no more plan every event in a real journey than you can plan spontaneity.

To the extent that black and white thinking reduces the opportunities for experimentation, it is incompatible with the fullest exploration of life.  In effect, one thus becomes imprisoned by one’s own mind.

11 thoughts on “How Black and White Thinking Limits Living

  1. I may not comment all the time, but I really enjoy the musings at your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the world.

    Black-and-white thinking is certainly a reflection of young people’s lack of life experiences. Experiencing the messy ambiguities of the world helps many people break out of black-and-white thinking as they age. Unfortunately, black-and-white thinking can be seductive, given that it provides easy answers to moral problems as well as the comfort of moral certainty. For those who prefer certainty to discovery, black-and-white thinking can last a lifetime.

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  2. Thank you for another post that really speaks to me. I am about to embark on another journey into the unknown, and your thoughts reminded me that change is part of the thrill of living. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I’m going to enjoy the journey.

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  3. I agree with Ahab that the youthful tendency to think in black and white terms reflects lack of life experience, but it also reflects our tendency to grow up with parental/cultural “rules” for our behavior, many of which are restrictive and chafe teenagers and young adults in particular. Most of us eventually reach a point where we may have gained enough maturity and self confidence to at least consider “thinking outside the box”, unless we have chosen to accept the comfort and group approval of literal acceptance of one of the Abrahamic religions, thus obviating any possibility of intellectual growth. It seems ironic to me that most new breakthroughs in scientific thinking take place before the age of 40, whereas willingness to consider “gray areas” in religious/philosophical/cultural matters apparently grows with age.

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  4. In youth one is learning to comprehend what relative reality is by using sharply contrasting views to measure responses from the surrounding culture. At some point an individual finally begins to accept the grayness of it all and to be complicit in relative agreement with the norm.

    A child is a laboratory filled with experiments. Some of them explode.

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  5. I agree with other commenters on the point of experience affecting the youthful B&W outlook. I wonder if that lack of experience can be more precisely targeted as a lack of experience in rationalization. It seems to me that as someone does more things which they would not want others to do, making rational exceptions for their own behavior, this would naturally open the eyes of that person to realizing that there is a lot of gray in the world.

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  6. I started pestering our young friends with annoying statements along the lines of, “I know someone who is grateful that his wife cheated on him. He says it broke up their failed, abusive marriage — which he nevertheless would not have left, had his wife not run off with another man.” But my examples were simply swallowed by my audience’s absolute certainty that moral matters could always be reduced to straightforward calculations of right vs. wrong or good vs. bad.

    Apparently, many women think it’s okay to cheat on their husband with other men just because it’s a girly thing to do while their husband tries seize possession of them and fights the manstress (male mistress). OJ Simpson apparently killed his wife for cheating on him with Johnny Cochran and he killed him as well. And women are also expected to marry men for looks, money, and education. Men must have everything or else they’re fags or not marriage material. Or better yet, women will leave them men who are perfectly masculine enough or verbally abuse them. Same thing for men, they are expected to marry women who are completely feminine. Women must give up any masculine trait they possess or they’re not marriage material as well. That’s how it is in society.

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