Black, White and Shades of Grey : My Very Amateurish Reflection On Dichotomous Thinking

I have been reading on Psychology these days and I came across the concept of dichotomous thinking. It made me pause on my reading and reflect on it. There were occasions when I was ‘accused’ of dichotomous thinking, myself. But there were also times when I was accused of being too philosophical, too ‘loose’, too ‘relaxed, too ‘abstract’.

When I was not yet a PSY MO, I did not give a fig what other people thought of my style of thinking. I do what I do and I think what I think. I am not going to lie and said “I don’t care what other people think of me when I do or say something controversial”. Of course I care….but not so much until I would change what I say or what I do to please them. I do care…but only up to a certain point, and no further. (I guess, I have been at the stage of Kohlberg’s Post-Conventional since I was 18 years old. And to be honest, I have always been proud about my (style of) logical thinking and my ability to defend my stand. When I believe I can justify it, I will just do it. Drive my parents nuts at times…but they have become habituated to it.)

But now, knowing what I know as a PSY MO, having someone accused me of black-and-white thinking is really annoying and never failed to erect my defensiveness (At least, I am self-aware, hahah). This is because I now know that labeling  someone with dichotomous thinking has some sort of diagnostic implication in certain situation, especially when it is coupled with some other traits and behaviours. And thus, it makes me think even deeper on the whole Dichotomous/black-and-white thinking concept.

I am going to freely admit, that the more deeply I think of dichotomous thinking, the more confused I become.

And I am still weighing my stand and my judgment and my own thought on this. You see, I choose psychiatry EXACTLY because there are more room for my own flare of interpretation and style. (I have always been irrevocably in love with freedom, I am afraid) Otherwise, I would have chosen to work in other field of medicine. Even psychiatrists disagree with each other in certain things. I like the idea that –within limit and reason – we can disagree. That I can say you may not be right, even if you are a specialist. (I don’t mean to sound arrogant but this is what I honestly feel. I don’t subscribe to the motto that “boss is always right” and I never will. ‘Always right’ is too dichotomous, anyway kan? No one is that ‘maksum’). I would like to be able to say to ANYONE that my view on this issue is more accurate even though yours may not be wrong either. Of course I don’t go around defying my boss’s opinion all the time if I was not asked (I still have some form of social etiquette left, for which my mom thank The Almighty)…but if I were asked, I would tell them what I really think with as much respect as I could. In Australia, even a medical student is asked of her opinion about many issues especially on the grey areas of psychiatry, it was so liberating!

You see, I think deep inside those who work in psychiatry price their ability to reason and make a logical argument. Isn’t it funny? Not many people can claim that their mind is their passion! Passion is usually associated with matters of the heart rather than the mind. But really, the passion in psychiatry is the mind! We are interested in how people think and for communication purpose we give labels to those thinking styles. (I guess, some other people might argue that we are dichotomous in our own way.)

Below is my possibly faulty, amateurish view on this whole dichotomous thinking thingy. I thought that I might as well jot down err, type out what I  think about it now, so that if  I ever feel differently later (upon gaining further knowledge and experience), I might one day read this again and laugh at my old self. (You see, for all that some people seem to think that I can be quite rigid, I do keep an open mind that one day my opinion might change.) 

That’s something  I always love to do . I still revisit and reread some of my old posts when I was a 4th year/ 5th year medical student; the early days of my blogging years. Sometimes I cringed and thought ‘what was I thinking to be writing such an asinine nonsensical thing years ago?’. But there are also times when I feel like ‘Oh, I made so much sense even back then’. Hahaha (yup, my vanity at play again). But all in all, I like keeping a record of my thought process whenever I stumbled on a new idea/concept/worldview. It reminded me of the progress I have made and how my thinking is always dynamically evolving, and hopefully more refined over the years. It will be interesting to see whether or not I still believe the same thing later on.


Black, white, shades of grey…

Someone who displays black-and-white reasoning is said to be displaying dichotomous thinking. It is considered immature, teenager-ish and sometimes, a trait of Borderline Personality Disorder.

The most common example of dichotomous thinking can be seen among politicians and their extreme supporters. They say only the best of things about their own party while every evil thing imaginable in THIS universe (and beyond) is bestowed on the other party. Sometimes dichotomous thinking manifests itself in a manner of self-serving biased statements, but not always.

In dichotomous black-and-white thinking, someone is either right or wrong. You only either really hate someone or really love someone. Life is either totally intolerable or marvellously beautiful. Housemen are all lazy and specialists are all self-sacrificing angels. Specialists are all bullies and housemen are all innocent victims. (sorry, I cannot help myself from giving the housemen-specialist examples. Everybody knows this is my favourite pet subject. Haha)

Let’s face it! We all – at some time or other – fell into the trap of dichotomous thinking, especially in certain issues we feel strongly about.

Dichotomous thinking, like everything else, has its pros and cons. But perhaps, more cons than pros.

Actually, someone who consistently thinks in black and white is going to be self-destructive and chaotic in most aspect of their lives. ‘Unstable’ is the simple word to describe it. She idolizes her boyfriend as the most ‘loving and caring person on earth’ when he gives her flowers for no special reason, and then hates her boyfriend as the most ‘evil, inconsiderate slimy scum of the earth’ when he forgets her birthday (this is not just sulking. I mean ACTUALLY hates her boyfriend, and breaks up with him and go through a lot of emotional drama for every simple reason). It is argued that a stable mature person should be able to see the world as more complicated than simple black-and-white complete opposites. In this case, she should be able to embrace all the good and the bad aspects that make the whole of her boyfriend without going up the wall at every slightest thing.

But remember. It is CONSISTENT dichotomous thinking that is destructive. Whereas, I would argue that occasionally appropriate dichotomous thinking is beneficial and even healthy (see, I am displaying non-dichotomous thinking when I said that not all dichotomous thinking is bad every single time in every single situation. Got it?)

I believe, having a principle is part of dichotomous thinking in certain situation. I believe, that is what principles are for. Principles are most important to adhere to NOT only during the time when it is easy (when we are naturally inclined to it, anyway), but the best usage of principles is to help us guide ourselves when it is so very tempting and easier to deviate.

For example, if there was a person named A who has a staunchly-held principles about a certain matter and would not budge from it, she is going to be viewed by person B (who has different principles) as non-flexible and black-and-white and dichotomous. But bear in mind that just because Person B was right in saying that Person A is dichotomous in that particular issue, that does not make Person A wrong in her views. Being dichotomous is not synonymous to being wrong and vice versa.  Because there may be other instances in other issues when the situation is reversed; Person A might then be more carefree and Person B is more rigid. Would it then be okay for Person A to say to Person B “you are just as dichotomous as I am when it comes to THIS issue!”?

Then we all will start telling each other that they are ‘dichotomous this’ and ‘dichotomous that’ in different issues! If that happens, it would be so funny! We are all going to compete and fight to label our friends as dichotomous anytime we have an argument with them when they appear more rigid than us. So someone can simply win an argument by ending their point with “you are dichotomous!”. The term will lost its diagnostic usage.

For example: Have you heard about how controversial it was when Dr. Mashitah answered the question on ‘pelacuran kerana terpaksa’ a few years back? (Do not behave like some people who condemned without really reading on the issue. We should strive to get to the primary sources of the issue before we make our judgement. I suggest you guys read it and come up with your own conclusion.)

Person A: Zina is haram

Person B: Sekarang darurat. Saya ada anak 5 orang. Suami sudah mati. Saya tak ada keluarga lain yang boleh bantu. Dengan duit menjadi pelacur inilah saya menyara anak-anak saya.

Person A: Takkan tak ada kerja lain yang boleh buat? Banyak lagi kerja lain. Yang haram tetap haram.

Person B: Saya tak ada kelulusan apa-apa. Mana ada orang nak ambil kerja. Nak berniaga, tak ada modal lagi.

Person A: Zina itu haram. Baitulmal ada. Zakat ada. Minta sedekah pun lebih baik daripada jadi pelacur. Bertaubatlah.

Person B: Awak tak faham situasi darurat saya. Bukan semua benda hitam-dan-putih. Kenapa terlalu menghakimi sedangkan awak tak mengalami?

Difficult isn’t it? Is Person A dichotomous?  She keeps saying ‘zina is haram’ and repeated it in her every sentence without even attempting to appear empathetic and understanding to B’s plight.

Or is B too relaxed, too grey? After all, someone’s darurat is not the same as another person’s darurat, kan? Why is it so ‘darurat’ for her?

How about in the case of riba’? Even Islamic banking is not free from this riba’…they just give it different terms. (of course, this has its own debate which I am not going to get into. I freely admit that by making loans (from Islamic bank, too) to purchase my car and my house, I have been involved in riba’ myself. But I don’t try to justify my action by saying it is halal, and in anyway try to alter the black-and-white so that it then becomes grey just so I will be able to live with myself. It’s just that I recognize that riba’ as a system is so very widespread that it is just so difficult to 100 percent distance yourself from it without making your life difficult. But it still does not make it right. This is me declaring my UNRESOLVED COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. If you are interested to read on how Islamic Banks are being deceptive and disguising riba’ simply by adding the cosmetics of ‘akad’ and changing certain terms , read  this link to the article

Person A: Sekarang ni rumah dan kereta adalah keperluan. Terpaksa juga buat ‘loan’. Nak tak nak pun, kena juga terlibat dengan riba untuk beli rumah dan kereta.

Person B: Well, mungkin aku ni seorang pelacur. Tapi aku tak pernah terlibat dengan riba. Riba kan haram. Tak tahu ke dalam Al-Quran Allah iystiharkan perang terhadap sesiapa sahaja yang mengamalkan riba’.

Person A: Weh, we live in the system! Tak boleh nak buat apa. Darurat kot!

Person B: Apa yang daruratnya? Boleh naik bas, kan! Boleh jalan kaki, kan? Rumah tak payah beli; sewa sajalah. Unless you are telling me that not having a transport is a life-or-death matter?

Person A: Kau ni hitam/putih sangatlah.  Situasi sekarang ni sangat kompleks. Memanglah riba tu haram, tapi kau kena faham juga situasi semasa dan faktor2 lain yang terlibat dalam masalah ni. Aku kena pi kerja. Public transport tak reliable. Kalau aku asyik lewat pi kerja, aku kena buang kerja. Habis, anak-anak aku siapa nak bagi makan?

Person B: Riba tetap haram.

I never knew anyone who is a prostitute. I would love to just talk to them and pick their minds if I have the chance. But I DO KNOW of a Muslim convert who is so very much against riba (he is in the legal profession) who used to travel with public transport until his company provided him with a car, and he only rents his house until even now (even though with his monthly pay check  he could have made loans to purchase a car and a house). He kept his money in a bank too, but he requested for the account with low or no interest. When there is an increment in his savings due to interest, he would painstakingly analyze his bank account statement and took the portion of the interest money away from his original savings.  I was told of his words by someone who knew him closely “Sebab saya tak ada transport, akhirnya company bagi kereta kat saya untuk guna. I didn’t need to make loans to use a car, after all. I think, Allah will help those who try his best to adhere to His law in unimaginable ways. Maybe because I am a convert, I feel about this strongly. Those who are born Muslims take for granted the very essence of what made this religion beautiful.”

For him, riba’ is not a grey area. Even facing with much difficulties, he will adjust his circumstances and his desires and his wants to meet the law (the black and white). He won’t try to manipulate the law to suit his own desires and simply say “Don’t be dichotomous!”

So tell me, is this exceptional Muslim convert is being dichotomous or merely principled? In every given situation, who is the best judge to say that either being more black-and-white or being more grey is the best or the right thing to be for that particular issue, at that particular time?

Who can give that judgment? Religious Imams? Political leaders? Judges?


We are all liable to make mistakes in making judgments such as this.


As a PSY MO, I would NOT label someone as having black and white thinking when the issue is involving principles or religious beliefs or universal truths or facts. That’s what principles are for! Not to be adhered to only when it is easy to do so, but to cling on to when it is most difficult and tempting.

I would only say someone is dichotomous when the issue is involving:


“My way is better than your way.”

(however bear in mind that, if the person can say WHY his way is ACTUALLY better, and his reason is convincing and sound, then it is NOT fair to call the person dichotomous too! And also if that person is naturally autocratic, then maybe this is not about him being dichotomous but simply his leadership style.)

2)Personality Characteristics

“Extrovert is always better than introvert” (in what aspect?)

“Funny people is always more entertaining than smart people” (says who? I happen to be more entertained by smart people than funny people most of the time)

(But if he says “extrovert is better than introvert in THIS particular aspect” and what he said is proven by research and general self-evident  observation, then we should also NOT call the person dichotomous.)

3)Excessive Overgeneralization/Minimization/Maximization Statements

“I love you so much because you are ALWAYS kind and considerate to EVERYONE”

(‘always and everyone’ consists of a very large amount of people to be kind to. In fact, it means the whole human population of the world! Are you sure someone that exemplary really exists?)

“I will hate you forever. You NEVER do a single good thing to me in our 12 years together!”

(Whoa! 12 years together and NOT A SINGLE GOOD THING has been done? He married you…he gives you a ring/gold and jewelries…that’s two good things already at the start of the marriage. God only knows how many good things he has given you for 12 years, lady! Be fair!)

– Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish whether this is dichotomous thinking or overgeneralization or minimization or maximization. Or maybe just histrionic drama-queen tendencies.

See, how difficult this black-and-white, dichotomous thinking is! The more I think about it, the more confused I become.

Just hearing someone saying a black-and-white statement (and it is only YOUR opinion that what she says is black and white, others might actually think it is grey) is not enough evidence to say that she has a black-and-white thinking.

Describing someone as dichotomous should be supported with other characteristics of her personality, for the purpose of making a diagnosis!  Otherwise a dichotomous thinking may be confused with autocratic traits, principles ardently held, biasness, maximization/ minimization/ overgeneralized statements. In general, we can distinguish all these from each other. But at times, it can be difficult to say with much accuracy whether that person REALLY is dichotomous or simply having other forms of automatic negative thoughts.

You see, I actually think that labelling someone as having a black-and-white thinking without any clinical or diagnostic purpose is a futile and time-wasting effort. Why bother?

Or perhaps, you are trying to have the last word in an argument and thus saying someone has a dichotomous thinking is much easier than having to come up with a counter-argument when you have run out of points. (Hahaha. I do that myself, at times. We tend to divert the topic. Instead of saying what we think is wrong in his argument, we simply give his character and his way of thinking a certain label. It is easier than having to come up with our own argument to counter his. I call that cheating!)

Everybody, at one time or another, does this to some other person. I am guilty of it, myself. But being in psychiatry taught me that I should be careful of what label I use. Unless I want to diagnose you as a patient, I am not going to tell you what label I put your category of thinking is. (But I cannot promise not to label you in my mind. This is something already second nature to us in psychiatry. But I promise to always bear in mind that whatever label I give you in my mind will be changeable upon future evidence.)


Black, white, shades of grey…they are only continuum of (non)colours.

Like Person A and person B, we can be white, black and grey in different issues and in different circumstances and in different times. So, if you don’t agree with someone, do not label her thinking; just refute her argument with your own argument.

I was told to be tolerance of ambiguity if I want to be a psychiatrist.

I was told to embrace ambiguity. But the most ambiguous thing to me is the concept of ambiguity itself. It could be that your ambiguity might be my clarity and my clarity might be your ambiguity.

At the end of the day, who is the judge of all these?

So, after having thought about it long and good, I decided to say:

1)I am not going to label anybody’s thinking unless he/she is a patient that I need to diagnose. It is quite easy to unfairly label someone’s thinking inaccurately, just because we do not have the same principles that he/she does. So I will minimize my tendency to give labels, to reduce my probability of unfairly and wrongly labelling someone. (this is me displaying my non-dichotomous thinking, see?)

2) There are many grey areas. But there are also many black-and-white areas. However, your black might be my grey. My grey might be your white. If we are to have an argument, let’s respect each other by arguing on each other’s points rather than ending an argument by giving labels to your opponent’s thinking. It is boring to win so unfairly easily just by giving a general statement such as ‘you are dichotomous!’. Actually…it’s cheating!

3) Since we have established that we all have our own dichotomous and non-dichotomous moments at different times with different issues, let’s just agree to ‘live and let live’. We all should be able to say what we think and defend why we think the way we do, without fearing other people would label us with this and that (unless you are a patient and I need to look at that aspect of things because it is my job).

4)At the end of the day, do what you think is right. Because there will always be someone else somewhere who still think that what you think is right is actually a grey area. As long as you can be at peace with yourself, the rest fall into insignificance.  I won’t say stop caring what the society thinks. We live in the society and there should be some level of deference to social etiquettes. But ONLY up to a point. Beyond a certain point, you yourself know when is the right time to make a stand no matter what, and if that time comes, do not fail to make a stand just because you are afraid of what the society might think and label you. Just remember that Society had wrongly labelled our prophets too in those days…so, what’s the big deal if they wrongly label you who is not even a prophet pun kan? It is only a big deal if you fail to be true and fail to be at peace with yourself just to appease the society. Don’t make that mistake.

Finally, my dears!



2 thoughts on “Black, White and Shades of Grey : My Very Amateurish Reflection On Dichotomous Thinking

  1. Dear doctor, you might want to consider ‘justifying’ your text next time. You know, not justification, but to align your text (text formatting). I guess i maybe a bit OCD so i feel a bit disturbed seeing ‘unjustified’ (unaligned) text. Great content though. Keep writing.


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