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What Does It Mean If Something Is "Black and White"?

By Bethany Keene
Updated May 23, 2024
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When something is "black and white," it means either that the answer is very clear, that there is a plain right and wrong answer, or that an individual is thinking in terms of absolutes. Thinking in terms of black and white can be useful in some situations, but generally speaking, acknowledging the many "gray," or in-between, areas possible in life, such as where a certain action could be right or wrong depending on the context, indicates a more mature way of thinking.

Saying something is black and white does not refer to literal colors. Instead, it is a metaphor representing two different extremes, or two opposites. Young children will often think in these extreme terms because they have not yet developed the nuanced cognitive skills required to see both sides of an issue. Children might get upset if they have to share a toy, for example; they see the toy as belonging to them, and have trouble understanding the benefits of sharing one's things with others.

In addition, stating that a thing is black and white might indicate that the meaning or the answer is clear. In some situations, a clear right or wrong may be clear; in this case, the situation is said to be black and white, implying that the solution is obvious. It does not require further debate and discussion in order to arrive at the correct answer. Of course, what is a clear solution to some people might not be the same to others, which is why it is rare that situations truly are abundantly clear without any gray area in the middle.

Describing the middle ground of a situation or question as "gray area" carries the metaphor even further. It refers to an area in which things get murkier or less clear, and where further questions arise. Depending on a person's perspective, a decision, answer, or viewpoint could be right or wrong, and it is important to recognize this throughout life. People who deal well with other people and behave more maturely in most situations are often better at recognizing the gray area, and finding the middle ground in discussions. This makes it possible to see both sides of the story before making a decision.

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Discussion Comments

By SteamLouis — On Jan 01, 2014

@ddljohn-- We can say that stealing is wrong, but we can't always say that a thief is a bad person. For example, if someone steals bread because he can't afford it, is he a bad person? I think that's what "gray" areas mean. There's always more than what meets the eye.

By ddljohn — On Dec 31, 2013

@SarahGen-- I see what you mean, but black and white thinking is not always bad, especially when it means distinguishing right from wrong. I think that there are a lot of cases where the right thing is obvious. When there is an issue of ethics, anyone who is aware of ethical rules will know what is wrong and what is right. For example, everyone knows that it is wrong to steal. If someone has stolen, we can say that they did something wrong. So there isn't always a gray area.

By SarahGen — On Dec 31, 2013

My psychologist feels that it's not good to think in black and white terms. She says that people who think this way tend to have low self-esteem and may be more likely to suffer from depression.

I think she may be right. When someone thinks in black and white terms, they may be very positive or very negative about issues. Being positive is good, but when situations are seen in a very negative light, it can be depressing.

I tend to think in black and white terms sometimes and I need to change that. If I realize that things are not as bad as they seem or as great as they seem, I won't be disappointed so often.

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