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What Is Dichotomous Thinking?

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Dichotomous thinking, also known as "black or white thinking," is a symptom of many psychiatric conditions and personality disorders, including borderline personality disorder (BPD). Dichotomous thinking contributes to interpersonal problems and to emotional and behavioral instability. Many people experience dichotomous thinking sometimes, but it can be a problem when extreme conclusions about yourself, other people, or circumstances, interfere with your emotional stability, relationships, and decisions.

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The human mind is a complex machine that links together cognitions, physical feelings and emotions. Psychologist Aaron Beck developed his theory on cognitive with a heavy emphasis on the phenomenon of automatic thoughts

He noticed that people who experienced depression “exhibited a negative bias in their interpretation or thinking”. Beck believed that this negative bias tended to lead to self deprecation and ultimately to feelings of depression. According to Beck, automatic thoughts are personalized beliefs that are triggered by internal or external events and stimuli that result in an emotional response. A study by Ingram, Atkinson, Slater, Saccuzzo and Garfin stated that “negative automatic thoughts are proposed to consist of generalized deprecatory self-statements that are recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive”. In other words, they are default thought processes a person can be programmed with that affects how they respond to life. This programming can be due to values and beliefs about the self or situations, and can be both positive and negative. Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) have been linked to depression through Beck’s research as well as through other studies, and have been linked to other emotional disturbances such as anxiety and even physical symptoms of pain. With the discovery of ANTs and an awareness that they were a problem and resulted in negative effects, researchers began to look into how these thoughts come to be. A few concluded that ANTs were a result of misconceptions of the world based on flawed thinking, which have been called cognitive distortions. These cognitive distortions are thought to be the framework which encourages the development of ANTs. One cognitive distortion is known as arbitrary inference, which is an exaggerated version of the common behavior known as jumping to conclusions. Someone experiencing an ANT of this variety might tend to think only about the worst possible outcomes of a situation. An example of this might be a woman who notices that her mobile phone battery has run out of power, and starts to worry about what will happen if she were to have some sort of emergency that required phoning for help. A cognitive distortion related to arbitrary inference is magnification of an experience. A person who views a situation in a magnified manner may give it more attention and thought than really necessary, such as in the case of the woman and her mobile phone. The opposite, minimalization, involves giving a situation less attention or thought than it warrants, such as feeling that being physically abused by one’s spouse is not a problem that needs to be dealt with.

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The concept of adaptive moderation has been prominent in the psychotherapy field for some time. This concept is especially relevant to people whose difficulties are due to black-and-white thinking, because this type of cognition is incompatible with moderation. Black-and-white or dichotomous thinking is a hallmark of Borderline Personality Disorder, and it also appears in a wide range of other disturbances. This type of thinking is featured prominently in well-known lists of cognitive distortions by Beck (2011) and Burns (1999)

The difference between people with diagnosable disturbances and those with ordinary problems in living is generally just a matter of degree, and the same is true for black-and-white thinking. Everyone does it sometimes, and some do it so much, or in regard to such important issues, that a serious disturbance results. Dichotomous thinking is often involved in significant problems in living and conflicts in relationships. Also, black-and-white thinking seems to contribute mightily to the acrimonious, divisive nature of politics in the United States (and other countries) at the present time.

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Overall, catching yourself using dichotomous thinking (and correcting yourself) can transform an unrealistic thought into a more truthful (and probably less stress-inducing) one

Unglamorous adjectives like “middle-aged” or “in-between” and low-impact phrases like “moderately shy” probably won’t win you any grand literary awards, but they do stand a good chance at helping you view the world through a more accurate lens.

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Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.

Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy revised and updated. New York: Avon.

Feindler, E. L., & Ecton, R. B. (1994). Adolescent anger control: Cognitive-behavioral techniques. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

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