Recently, the subject of “black-and-white thinking” has come up in the (awesome!!) comments section of a couple of the posts on this blog. Today, I thought it might be useful to expand on this topic a little bit. “Black-and-white thinking” is a frequently-listed trait in many books on Asperger’s/autism, and it’s also commonly-used term within the Asperger’s/autism spectrum community. It appears to be taken as sort of a “given” that people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum are prone to thinking in terms of black and white.
What is black-and-white thinking, anyway?
A commenter in a discussion over on the Wrong Planet forum defines it rather well:
“when you think in absolutes, sort of all or nothing and seeing the world in extremes”
The commenter goes on to give a few examples, for which I’ll issue a Content Advisory (ableist language for those who find it particularly offensive); in the interest of illustrating examples without having to witness ableism, here are a few of my own (just to name a few):
- If you’re not practically euphoric, you’re feeling down.
- If you’re not a virtual energizer bunny, you’re “lazy”.
- If you’re not pious, you’re delinquent.
- If you’re not held down by society, you’re privileged (without recognizing various levels of privilege vs discrimination).
- If you’re not perfect/a success, then you’re a “failure”.
- You’re either a friend or an enemy.
- Rich/wealthy vs poor/destitute.
- (And vice versa, for any of these.)
Another website (AspieCentral.com) mentions less of an ability to see “shades of gray”.
Does this phenomenon apply to people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, any more than it does to the non-spectrum population?
My answer, based on what I experience and what I’ve witnessed is: yes and no.
Well, that certainly narrows it down, doesn’t it? 😉 As usual, I’ll explain (and these are simply my theories based on experience and observation)…
On the one hand, we could be more subject to a tendency to think in terms of black and white, either “this” or “that”, with little-to-nothing in between.
I can think of several possible reasons for this.
When logic reigns supreme – The way logic works, if something isn’t “this” way, then it must be “that” way. Computers, the epitome of logic, ultimately run on binary code–ones and zeros. These ones and zeros tell the computer to turn various switches on or off. There are no other options–there’s either a one or a zero, and the switch is either turned on or it remains off. Another example might involve mathematics; an answer to a math problem is either correct, or it isn’t. For those of us who filter the world and our experience of it through multiple layers of logic, our brains might be working in a similar way; if “this” is true, then “that” must be false. There is no in-between, no middle ground, no happy medium, no Option C.
Some of us have linked this black-and-white thought to perfectionism (article on The Mighty; although I have my personal beefs with The Mighty itself, the article is good). I don’t have hard numbers, but I would say that a clear majority of us have perfectionistic tendencies. Our efforts have either met a set of standards (self-imposed or insisted upon by others), or they haven’t. We may continue putting forth the effort until we either receive an approving nod from someone else, or we feel wholly satisfied that we’ve done our very best. There may not be a such concept as “good enough”, unless someone else has given us that reassurance.
Others of us have made the connection between the black-and-whiteness of logical thinking and justice; either a person is guilty or they’re innocent. They either did something wrong, or they didn’t. They deserve to be punished, or they don’t.
I believe that an underlying driver of black-and-white thought might involve anxiety. That might sound a little strange, but stay with me 🙂 If someone is overwhelmed, this leads to anxiety. The reverse is true, too; someone who is anxiety-prone or actively experiencing anxiety might be easily overwhelmed. The greater the number (and significance) of unknown variables, the greater the number of possibilities to consider and keep track of, and the greater the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed by the swirling milieu.
Being able to nail certain options down into a black-and-white virtual box, however, could add stability to the situation, reducing the number of unknown, hazy variables, and organizing them in our brains. Known (as opposed to unknown) variables are generally easier to categorize and simplify. It’s almost like being able to cross these items off of a mental checklist.
- “OK, that’s taken care of.”
- “That decision has been made.”
- “At least we know that information.”
- “Good–that’s been spoken for.”
- “That issue is settled.”
If you’re like me, you can feel the relief in those statements. With each item mentally crossed off and settled, the anxiety incrementally dissipates.
But an issue only “counts” as resolved if it’s fully resolved. Until it’s completely resolved, there are still loose ends to tie up, details to tweak, unknowns dangling in the wind that need solidifying. Until then, even if most of the issue is taken care of, it can’t yet be crossed off the list. Until it is, it remains in our minds, zipping around in need of attention; we can’t let it drop just yet.
This phenomenon of “either it’s resolved/finished, or it’s not” can contribute to black-and-white thinking processes. This is especially true if the person experiences scenarios (and their accompanying emotional responses) frequently in life.
To those of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, this black-and-white thinking might serve us very practically. Either someone is “safe” or an ally or a friend, or they aren’t. Either they can be trusted, or they can’t.
Also, once a decision has been made, we’re less likely to change our minds. We tend not to flip-flop as often. Chances are, when we’ve made a decision, our verdict is the result of plenty of intense thought and data-crunching. We’re likely to have done plenty of research and fact-finding before rendering an opinion or making a decision. We’re not afraid to reverse our stance, however, if presented with compelling information that runs contrary to what we had originally learned. We tend not to cling to opinions just because we made them before. Here again, either something is right, or it’s wrong, and as (commonly) perfectionists, we’re likely to prefer to adjust our opinions or decisions so that they’re based on accurate information and in line with the correct answer. And any other strategy might seem silly or wishy-washy by comparison.
This may be perceived by some NTs as fixating on “black and white thinking”. As opposed to–what? Blurring the lines of reality?
All of the above is true.
However, there’s another side to the subject: do we think in shades of gray? Are we capable of doing so? Must it always be either-or, or is there any in-between?
I see so much variation in people on the spectrum that I’ve come to question the “black and white” claim. In fact, I’m starting to think it’s inaccurate.
I do believe that most of us are perfectly capable of thinking outside absolutes and seeing the beauty in the shades of gray. Consider that in general, the Asperger’s/autism spectrum itself is indeed a different (comparative to neurotypical) way of perceiving and experiencing the world and our lives within it. Relatively speaking, our neurotype is often a shade of gray in the rainbow of the world.
Many contemporary progressive experts on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum have mentioned a tendency (inherent in many of us) to consider multiple perspectives or ways of looking at something. We often come up with alternative viewpoints, visionary ideas, unconventional synopses and solutions, and whatnot. We are often able to see a situation through multiple lenses, viewed from multiple angles. And these experts attribute this ability directly to Asperger’s/autism.
This ability might bloom a little brighter and wider when we’re not under stress; the stress response changes people. It changes personalities, behavior, even though it’s usually only temporary. However, a severe stress response can become ingrained in neurology, such as in PTSD (post-traumatic stress) or BPD (Borderline Personality), both of which likely involve various types of trauma, which is automatically accompanied by various types of stress responses.
If someone is under severe, acute, or chronic stress, then all bets are likely off. Understandably, recognizing the value and beauty in gray shades is not likely to be high on the priority list.
Although many of us are rooted in logic, intuition and alternative thinking can play just as large a role. If we’re spiritual in any way (not necessarily synonymous with religion), or if we have nurturing/caring support, or we otherwise have strong connections with nature, or if we’re comfortable and secure with who we are, then many of us often begin to branch out in thought and take scenic mental journeys, which bring us to some interesting destinations.
Gray- (or color?-) scale thinking may also be more likely if one has had exposure to different blends of cultures, whether in person by traveling, or through ethnic background and cultural preservation, or keen interests in various cultures resulting in reading or other research, etc.
Additionally, if we’re artists or another type of creator, then it’s very likely that we don’t see the world in such binary one-and-zero terms, but rather, in analogue terms. Color spectra, swirly lines or shapes that have no mathematical formula, phenomena that can’t yet be explained by science. Many of us are indeed artists, which is not typically a product of black-and-white thinking. Some of us are writers or musicians, which could actually go either way; writing has infinite styles and topics; music can either be very structured and rhythmic or very unstructured and ethereal.
Personally, speaking in aggregate terms, I don’t see any more or less black-and-white thinking in people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum than I do in those off the spectrum. It’s simply a matter of how this thinking manifests; we may exhibit different examples of black-and-white thought than might be seen in the neurotypical population.
Neurotypical people, to us, may sometimes come across as wishy-washy. They might change their minds about a decision without the driving force of discovering new and solid information that conflicted with previous information. They may simply reverse their stance or commitment. (That’s not to say that we can’t or don’t do this, too, but I see it much less often.)
On the other hand, non-spectrum individuals may also exhibit their own manifestations of black-and-white thinking. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” went the war-supporting battlecry of the 2000s. As mentioned recently, people experiencing Borderline Personality may also experience extremes in terms of emotions, opinions, or perspectives. (I mention BPD because in terms of personality profile, it’s about as far away from Asperger’s/autism as anything I’ve seen so far, despite the fact that some of the outwardly-visible traits may appear somewhat similar.)
Non-spectrum individuals may cling to one opinion or another. Just look at how long the Deep South of the US took to release their (100-year) grudge against Republicans spearheading the resistance against slavery; the idea of the Deep South being a conglomeration of Red (Republican-dominated) States is actually a relatively new concept, over the last 50 years or so. I’m definitely trying not to get political here, but it’s almost unavoidable when the obvious examples of neurotypical black-and-white thinking involve politics.
Religion could be another neurotypical black-and-white thought construct; many religious fundamentalist people hold the idea that if you’re not an adherent of their faith, you’re doomed in some way, either in life or in the afterlife. They perceive non-adherents as heathens, infidels, and so on. Those who think along those lines are overwhelmingly neurotypical–and yet, that’s about as black-and-white as one can get.
In the end, the world needs all (harmless) kinds. Whether you think in terms of black and white, it doesn’t matter as long as it suits you and harms none. It’s even common to switch back and forth between black-and-white and shades-of-gray, depending on the circumstances, topic/subject matter, surrounding company, and so on.
And that’s perfectly OK 🙂