Category Archives: black and white thinking

"Be good. But if you can’t be good…"

“…be careful!” [Traditional Mancunian maternal admonition to young people, heading out for a good time] In 1960, I was lucky enough to get in on the ground floor of one of the longest-running, universally beloved [the Queen watches] telly shows in the UK, Coronation Street [Corrie, to its fans]. Filmed in Manchester [yeah, yeah, our family has visited the set at Granada Studios], it has portrayed the “rich tapestry” of multi-generational community life in a working-class neighborhood, written and acted with such “kitchen-sink,” warts-and-all authenticity, that the characters become a part of one’s own extended family. All the humor is character-or-plot-driven; and, of course, there is no laugh track. Whether they were so regarded before 1960, all Northerners are now assumed to be witty and wise–the source of such useful aphorisms as, “When in doubt, say nowt [tr. ‘nothing’].”

Profundities come on little cat feet. [See opening Corrie shot.] A child from The Street was feeling poorly and the doctor came round to see what was wrong with her. [Until very recently, GPs made housecalls]. A local shopkeeper asks the Mum what the matter turned out to be, and she replies, “Oh, it were summat and nowt [tr.’something and nothing’].” Don’t you wish that diagnosis were in the ICD-9? It describes so many fleeting ailments, for which Big Pharma wants to sell you an expensive cure. Alas, Summat & Nowt is only available on the National Health, innit?

Consider the societal benefits, if every young person were admonished, “Be good. But if you can’t be good, be careful.” [Sanctimonious hypocrites may need to go lie down for a bit in a darkened room.] [Who am I kidding? They aren’t reading this blog.] [Incidentally, a bit of a lie-down is what GPs prescribe, for a bout of Summat & Nowt.] It acknowledges the wolf. It avoids might-as-well-be-hung-for-a-sheep-as-a-lamb reasoning. [That is, that once a person has strayed from the straight & narrow path of their code of conduct, they rationalize that the day–or their soul–is going to hell, anyway, so they might as well be really self-destructive.]

Although she hailed from Tennessee rather than Manchester, a college friend of mine had the perfect antidote for the sheep-for-a-lamb slippery slope: “Well, the day is long, and I can redeem it.”

In cognitive psychology, sheep-for-a-lamb reasoning is called black & white thinking. Either you adhere perfectly to the code of conduct you were raised with, or you deserve bad outcome. Not to put too fine a point on it, folks, this logic says, “Either you practice abstinence, or you deserve AIDS and/or an unplanned pregnancy.” [Even to carry condoms on your person amounts to premeditated shenanigans.] Well, here’s what I say. Tech-savvy youth of the world, turn this picture of Lili in her raincoat into a Public Service Ad poster, bearing the motto: “Be good. But if you can’t be good, be careful!” Post it wherever condoms are [or should be] available. Help acknowledge the wolf, and reduce the incidence of preventable, undeserved human misery in the world, eh?

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Filed under black and white thinking, understanding shenanigans


(Quoted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1934 ed.) “[Italian: “light-dark”] noun: Treatment of light & shade in painting; light & shade effects in nature; variation, relief, handling of transitions, use of contrast, in literature, etc. adjective: half-revealed.”

On certain Projective [as opposed to Objective] psychological tests–where there supposedly aren’t any “right or wrong” answers, only “revealing” ones–the subject’s use of chiaroscuro [attention to the shading of an inkblot or an ambiguous drawing] has been interpreted in various ways, over the decades. The earliest developers of such tests [seeming to regard their own free associations to “light & dark” imagery as the norm] came up with: “anxiety about shadowy situations,” “fear of the dark,” and “hypervigilance.” I’m sure Carravaggio and his buddies in the artistic school of tenebrism would be amused to know that they were all Nervous Nellies.

By the time I was in grad school, the received wisdom was that use of chiaroscuro–a tendency to go beyond Black & White perceptions of an ambiguous situation, and instead to take into consideration the nuanced gray areas–reflected a capacity for abstract reasoning and empathy.

Like most things in psychology and real life, it could be both, ya know. Lili is most likely to react with alarm to suspected “intruders into her territory” when the light is tenebrous–at dawn & dusk. Like the lads in the lamppost anecdote, most scientific researchers trope to the light, rather than trolling through the dark alleys of half-revealed clues–even if that’s where the keys to understanding emotions and behavior lie. If we can be brave enough to tolerate the tenebrous subjunctive mood–“Well, I can’t say for sure, but it might be this…”–we can often stumble upon a useful truth.

Something seems to be troubling you. You are snapping at others, and shedding more tears than usual, and what a headache you just got! Oy, veh! Could you maybe be angry at someone or some situation? A little something up your nose? Rather than assume you are coming down with a Clinical Depression or “The Dreadful Lurgy” [aka the ‘flu], why not try a little poking around in the shadows of you mind, to see if you can get some instant relief? The “Always? Not always!” prof I told you about had a simple remedy for sudden-onset headache. “Say the name of the guy whose head you want to bash in!” [“Always a guy? Not always.”] Either the headache will go away right then, or you may be having an intra-cranial event. Are you willing to try it, before setting off for the ER? Maybe you could try it on the way. Just to see.

My favorite source of humor on weekday mornings is The Chris Moyles Show on BBC Radio One. The other day Chris was mildly mocking their light-weight, female sports reporter, who had apparently gotten “high as a kite” on one glass of wine at a Karaoke event they were hosting in a provincial pub. “When Carrie’s drunk, she could pick a fight with her own shadow: ‘Stop following me around, and falling at my feet!'”

Feel free to use it. And the possible headache cure, as well.

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Filed under aggression happens, black and white thinking, gets right up my nose, semiotics

"Gotta split."

Remember the Object Relations Theorists? (No? Well, I guess it’s a case of “Out of sight, out of mind.”) These guys cannot be accused of “circling the lamppost” to discover the whys and wherefores of human behavior–they go way back into the “dark alley.” Some, like the Kleinians, go back up the birth canal, to “study” a baby’s in utero experience. [How? By doing Regression Therapy with grown-ups, to help them “recall” these early times.] The Beauty Part? Who could ever disprove such personal, pre-verbal memories? [A twin, I suppose. There’s a dissertation topic, there.]

Others observe actual babies–tracking their eye movements, their facial expressions, the various vocalizations they make–not unlike ethologists’ studies of other primates, dogs, rats, or wolves. In both kinds of research, there is alot of inference going on–alot of projection of the observer’s thoughts & feelings onto the subjects under investigation. Don’t you just bet? So, caveat legens.

You are an infant, lying in your crib in your nursery, down the hall from your parents’ room. [This is in 1940s America or Western Europe. That’s how it was back then. None of your Family Bed sleeping arrangements, except for the very poor.] You have already cried several times, and your Good Mother has shown up, to do the needful–feed you, change you, rock you back to sleep, whatever. The last time you cried, however, your Bad Mother showed up–with lightening bolts coming out of her head! That was scary! [Fear] Now, you need Room Service again. How can you possibly risk the reappearance of Bad Mother? Maybe you’ll just try to hold out a little longer, but Oy, veh! The pain & suffering you’re enduring! It shouldn’t happen to a dog! So you develop a Las Vegas philosophy: “Life is a crap-shoot. It’s even money each time, whether Good Mother or Bad Mother will show up. I’m feeling lucky, so here goes. ‘Baby needs new shoes!'” This early defense mechanism, wherein necessary-but-sometimes-angry-people are split into two people [one Good, one Bad], is called Splitting.

In the best of all possible childhoods, more often Good Mother shows up, than Bad Mother; so that by the time the kid is a toddler, he is brave enough to do a little research of his own. What if, while he’s hanging out with Good Mother, he reaches up and tries to twist her lips off? Unless she has read too many books on child rearing forbidding her ever to say a discouraging word to her child, she will eventually–having endured her limit of pain & suffering at the hands of her beloved offspring–turn into Bad Mother, right before the toddler’s very eyes, and tell him to “Knock it off!” If she believes this mild rebuke will scar him for life, she may try to hang in there and display the patience of a saint. This makes the toddler think, “It’s no use. I’ll have to inflict more pain,”which he will then do, in the name of research. On the other hand, if the books mother has read suggest giving the toddler [and herself] a Time Out, and she flees the room to compose herself, when she re-enters as Good Mother, the toddler will be none the wiser; and he will take longer to give up the defense of splitting. In the best case scenario, Bad Mother stays onscreen with the kid and allows him to charm her back into Good Mother, by telling her “Sorry,” gently patting her aching lips, and so on. Variations on this experiment must be repeated daily for about a year, for the kid to “get” that Mother is “two, two, two Moms in one” [sometimes in a good mood, sometimes in an angry mood]. In the worst case scenario, if Bad Mother appearances far outnumber Good Mother ones, the kid will never have the courage to try the lip-twisting experiment, and so will have to keep the primitive defense of splitting, with everyone he encounters.

This rather far-fetched theory became plausible to me with my first child case @ the Psychological Counseling Center @ Columbia. A 5-year-old girl I’ll call “Sonya” kept complaining to me that I had just ignored her in the corridor, before each session in the playroom. Reluctantly, I came to realize that she was making the same “mistake” my boyfriend [another grad student in our class of 12] had–to find me interchangeable with the only other shicksa in our year, Grace. In the interests of psychotherapeutic progress, I persuaded Grace to stand beside me in the corridor, for “Sonya” to compare & contrast us, saying stuff like, “See? Grace wears Gloria Steinem glasses, and I don’t. She’s wearing corduroys and I’m wearing a long skirt. See?” Then “Sonya” and I went to the playroom, where I expected to experience the joys of a child who had given up splitting. “That was so cool, how you stood beside yourself like that!” she said. [It’s not a one-trial learning kind of thing.]

Individuals whose childhood prevented them from doing the “terrible twos” research necessary to integrate the Two Faces of Mother into one person–capable of both positive and negative emotions–are those with a tendency for Black & White thinking. [Very little chiaroscuro on their projective test answers.] They tend to regard someone new that they meet [especially a potential Significant Other] as “Perfect,” right up until the first time that the person puts a foot wrong–at which point they become an “Evil Doer.” Do you see where I’m going with this? Human beings are not either Perfect or Evil Doers. They’re light & shadow, a little of both. Just like Dear Old Mom.

By the way, many authors of books on dog training have characterized the emotional make-up of a dog as “part wolf, and part toddler.” A little of both.

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Filed under black and white thinking, ethology, magical thinking, object relations theory

"He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother"

Couple of fun facts, before I get to the point. [What’s new?] The Hollies released this song in the UK in 1969 (featuring Reg Dwight on piano); although Neil Diamond [him again?] recorded it before that, but didn’t get around to releasing it until after the Hollies’ version was a trans-Atlantic hit. Reg (who got paid 12 pounds Sterling as a session musician for the Parlaphone version) is now better known as Elton John. [If you knew all that, you’re a Geek, no matter how Field Dependent you are.]

Now to Desmond & Penny, who were born to different mothers, but adopted together from the Rancho Cucamonga Animal Shelter. If you’re a film buff [or just know about Boys’ Town], you will recall that the song title is taken from the motto of that once all-boy (now co-ed) Kid Shelter in Nebraska, made famous by the Spencer Tracy flick, Going My Way. So, Poetically speaking, the aphorism means, “I do not regard or perceive my fellow Boys’ Town inmate as a burden, but rather as my dear brother, whom I carry because I can.” In the cats’ case, however, it is literally true that Desmond [the exotic-looking striped & dotted male] weighs less than Penny [the black female], although they eat the same amount. If they were horses, one would say that Penny was a “good keeper,” whereas Desmond was a “hay burner.”

Alas, with cats, dogs & humans, being a “good keeper” is no longer regarded as a Good Thing [except in the 3rd World, where it keeps you alive in times of famine].When our daughter & her apartment-mate anthropomorphize their cats, they have Penny saying, “Does my brother make me look heavy?” In our East Coast menagerie, the two “hay burners” (Ruth, the 6-pound Maine Coon cat & Lili the 71-pound German Shepherd) have long, fluffy fur which disguises their ferret-like thinness [until they get wet]. Not so, shorthaired Desmond (whom his vet declares is “just fine-boned,” not unhealthy).

So, here’s the point. The vexed topic of Body Mass Index (for our pets & ourselves) seems to be a no-win proposition. The range of “just fine” seems to be a moving target; and failure to hit the bullseye leads to humiliating glances & remarks from the general public, and/or alarming remarks from healthcare providers. If one is a child or a pet, it can also lead to the imposition of a special diet [to promote weight loss or gain], which in turn can lead to the pain & suffering of various forms of eating disorder. For instance, when our vet urges us to feed Ruth bigger helpings, the food ends up [quickly “recycled”] on the floor. When she urges us to cut back on Napster’s serving size, he whines at us like Oliver Twist, until we relent and give him “some more.” And, as previously noted, these 4 irritants lead to anger & the production of bad-for-the-body cortisol.

So, my first bit of advice to those who have what is currently called Poor Body Image, is to adopt your body as a rescue pet. [I know, sounds kind of Out There, but after all, I am at least a part-time Flake.] Even though the vet decrees “Feed Ruth more,” and “Feed Napster less,” I take her [expensive] advice as a Serving Suggestion, and temper it with common sense and compassion. I make subtle course corrections, not Draconian changes. If I were you, and I had been given the “shape-up-or-be-shipped-out [possibly, on a stretcher]” ultimatum, I would strive to be as kind to my “pet” body, as to any of the animals in my care. I would forget about “Best in Show,” and set my sights on “Getting Better. Trending in the Right Direction.”

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Filed under black and white thinking, body image, lesser of two evils, stress and cortisol

The Lessons of Dusk

By now, regular readers of this blog will know that almost every phrase I write has [at least] two meanings. In my own time, I’ll get around to Dusk, the Dimming of the Day [known to modern tweeners as Twilight]; but I’ll begin with Dusk the QuarterHorse. Although I had been on and around horses since the age of 7, they had always been the Property and Responsibility of Others, whose ultimate decision it was whether to call the vet [or, alternatively, to reckon that a wound or a gimpy leg was just “summat & nowt”]. I may have been the one to cleanse the wound or soak the hoof; but I was not in loco parentis [the horse’s “mother”]. What a heavy burden that vet-or-not decision is, when you are responsible for a large, beloved, expensive animal’s welfare!

You collect equine health tips from all sorts: the stable lads, trainers, more seasoned owners, books, that old telly show All Creatures Great & Small. And soon you develop a rubric: a rough guide, to avoid the pitfalls of Fiddling While Roame Burns, on the one hand, and Crying Wolf, on the other. After “To Call or Not to Call the Vet?” comes the dilemma, “Stall Rest, or Walk It Off?” You see where I’m going with this? The corollary of “Adopt your body as a rescue pet,” is “Treat your body as well as you would treat my old mare, Dusk.” Unless a horse has had a catastrophic injury [like Barbaro], often [not always], exercise is a big part of the solution.

Obviously, their exercise may need to be modified from the classic beast-of-burden routine. The horse may need to be lunged [on a real or “pretend” lungeline], or ridden at a more sedate pace, or even taken for a swim. As anyone who followed the sad story of Barbaro knows, stall rest makes most horses stir crazy. They mope and stiffen up and get swollen ankles and develop “stable vices” [such as gnawing the wood or metal of their “cage”]. To anthropomorphize, they appear to get angry at their enforced idleness & confinement. Baby, they were born to run! And so were we humans.

Now, for the other lesson of tenebrosity. As noted in previous posts, most diurnal creatures get more fearful with the fading light, when they cannot see [potentially threatening] things as clearly. In the UK in the 60s, instead of school cancellations for snow, we had “fog days.” After some trial & error, we developed a rubric: “If we can’t see the blue door of the house across the road in our rural village, it’s a foggy day in London Town, as well. Ergo, no school.” Think Sherlock Holmes mysteries and Jack the Ripper flicks [not to mention the many iterations of the Jekyll & Hyde story]. “Cue the fog machine!”

So, have you seen this week’s news photos of Los Angeles’ smoke-shrouded skyline? Our kid’s college is a few miles south of the San Gabriel mountain fires; and the Dean sends us daily e-mail updates [no doubt, meant to allay parental fear, but having the opposite effect, in this household]. I bet he’s rethinking how swell it is, to be in loco parentis. The first safety measure the school took was to proscribe all outdoor athletic and recreational activities. Everyone at Claremont is on Stall Rest, until the smoke clears. [Highly inconvenient.]

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Filed under black and white thinking, born to run

“Just Stop It!”

So said a young woman I see, to her obsessive-compulsive boyfriend, whose prolonged, ritual flicking on & off of a light switch was making them Late for a Thing they had planned to do. To her amazement & delight, he did stop it, at least long enough for them to get on with the day’s agenda. Who knew? 40 years of trying to effect changes of behavior through Socratic reasoning and other insight-oriented methods, and all along I could have done what your Dad [or at least mine] did: sonorously intone the command, “Knock it off!”

Trouble is, as parents & dog owners know, once the Commander has left premises, the proscribed behavior usually resumes.

The hard-to-extinguish behavior that I wish I could peremptorily curb [in myself & those intrusted to my care] is Black & White Thinking: the so-called Cognitive Error of perceiving everything in life as either All Good or All Bad.

Big fans of Stanford biologist Robert M. Sapolsky’s 1994 PopPsych bestseller, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, may quibble with my choice of animal metaphor, since his point is that wild beasts don’t overthink life’s adversities, therefore they produce fewer glucocorticoids, and suffer fewer stress-related illnesses. My rebuttal would be that this particular zebra is a captive of the Los Angeles Zoo [where we took his/her picture]; and if zebra-ear semiotics are anything like horses’, this one was signalling a situationally appropriate lack of joie de vivre.  “Okay, so I may be safe from drought, poachers, and my traditional predators; but, Poseidon! Is this enclosure ever bo-ring! Bring on the lions, already.”

Also, come on, how black & white can you get?

Remember the teenagers’ mantra of the 90s, “…but it’s all good”?  Usually uttered right after their disclosure of a Fairly Bad event or situation? How tempting it was to remark, “Surely, it’s not all good? Not 100% good?” Then, as now, there were also the drama queens, who at the first sign of adversity declared that a situation was “the worst!” Really? You can’t imagine an even more grim scenario? This one takes the cake?

One year when my girls were fairly young I gave up saying “Never” and “Always” for Lent: “You never clean your room!” became, “A lot of times, you don’t clean  your room.” [Far more accurate, and less humiliating for all concerned.] As gratifying as the ensuing Peace & Harmony was, it was difficult to sustain. We humans are wired to dichotomize: friend or foe? Am I the fairest of them all, or the ugliest? Do I feel “On top of the world,” or “like Hell”?

May I suggest 2 antidotes to Black & White Thinking? One, print & post this visual mnemonic of my LA zebra. Two, in response to adverse situations, try to Find the Beauty Part: the small, positive aspect that makes it “So it shouldn’t be a total loss.” This basic premise of Stoic philosophy helps counteract the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” [which want to get up our nose and produce rage & glucocorticoids].

At least in your head, you could try to replace the [usually inaccurate] absolutes of “This is the best” or “This is the worst,” with the words of that modern-day Stoic philosopher, Larry David, “This is pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

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Filed under black and white thinking, Epictetus said..., semiotics

Somebody’s Baby


This post is a companion piece to two from early 2011: “Big Love & Other Oxytocin Myths” and “Just looking for some touch.” Whereas the “Big Love” post pictured my elder daughter walking with me through the Muir Woods outside San Francisco, here she is at our Maryland breeder’s farm, holding Emmy @ about 5 weeks old. IMG_1412

And, whereas in the earlier post our younger daughter was pictured currying favor with one of our horses, back in Michigan, here she is, several Yuletides ago, cradling Zanzibar, the cool cat she had adopted from the prison town of Chino, California, but then brought him home to live with us, realizing that he deserved more degrees of freedom than a college dorm room would afford him.

Aside from showing off my beloved babies in Madonna-like poses with two of our furry babies, there is a topical psychological point to this post.

Have you, perhaps, been as infuriated as I am, at the mother of the 2 alleged Boston Marathon bombers, who, even in the teeth of her younger son’s admission of guilt, continues mulishly to proclaim his “angelic” innocence? “What’s that all about?” as they say in Boston.

It’s about that pesky neuro-peptide, Oxytocin, folks. As the astute Dutchman, Carsten De Dreu [et al.] demonstrated, the more you perform nurturing acts for your “baby,” [human or furry], the more Oxytocin your brain produces; and the more you experience “in-group love” and “out-group hate.” Black & white thinking ensues. Her baby boys could do no wrong. Ever! The nefarious “out-group” is conspiring against them.

It’s an easy cognitive error to make, if you have expended many Therbligs in the loving care of a vulnerable creature. I spent last night rushing the gastro-intestially tormented Emmy outside every 30 minutes, from dusk until dawn. Not only am I punchy, I’m love-drunk. How nobly she bears her suffering! How hard she is trying to “do the right thing, in the right place” [not altogether successfully]. At the moment, she is too weak to be naughty; but when she does eventually recover and put a paw out of line, I’m likely to spin it as someone else’s fault.

Probably, that feisty clown, Zanzibar, who loves to provoke her.

Sound familiar?



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Filed under attribution theory, black and white thinking, therbligs, what's it all about?