Black-and-White Thinking Book Summary By Kevin Dutton

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"Black and White Thinking" (2020) takes a deep dive into the human psyche and examines the impulse to think in binary terms, categorizing things as either good or bad, right or wrong.

This book explores how our brains have adapted over time to survive in life-and-death situations, by sifting through options quickly as black-and-white options.

But our world has changed significantly since then.

Life is no longer black and white - often we're faced with complexities that can't be easily categorized.

This book discusses how this tendency towards "black or white" thinking can be changed and how we can learn to see things from different angles, accept shades of gray, and make decisions with nuance.

Book Name: Black-and-White Thinking (The Burden of a Binary Brain in a Complex World)

Author(s): Kevin Dutton

Rating: 4.5/5

Reading Time: 23 Minutes

Categories: Psychology

Author Bio

Kevin Dutton is a prominent British psychologist who has devoted much of his research towards the study of psychopathy and persuasion.

He's an esteemed academic with close ties to the University of Oxford and has even authored two books on related topics - The Wisdom of Psychopaths and Flipnosis: The Art of Split-Second Persuasion.

His work has been praised internationally, making him one of the most sought after minds in the field today.

Exploring The Gray Area Between Too Many And Too Few Categories: The Balance Of Knowing When To Categorize


In Black-and-White Thinking, we explore the power of categorization and why our brains have developed it.

We look at how having too few or too many categories can lead us astray, and what finding a balance between the two looks like.

With this book, you’ll learn about the ways we naturally categorize the outside world, and understand why our brains do so.

The book covers many interesting points – from when an overwhelming number of categories can make a mountain of a molehill to how hoarders are unable to throw things out – in order to give readers an insightful understanding into why we frequently find it hard to navigate nuanced concepts in life.

Additionally, you’ll also come to recognize that word “we” has a powerful ability to bind us together even against outside forces.

Black-and-White Thinking provides valuable insight into the ways our minds have learned to categorize the world around us, and how harnessing that knowledge can help us understand ourselves better in order to live fuller lives.

Humans Are Born With The Gift Of Categorization That Helped Our Ancestors Survive, But In Modern Times It Can Lead To Trouble

Categorization is an essential skill humans are born with and it’s one that helps us make sense of the world.

A 2005 study by developmental psychologist Lisa Oakes revealed how powerful this ability really is when she showed pictures of cats to a group of four-month-old infants.

The infants looked longer at the dogs than the unfamiliar cats, suggesting that they were processing them differently and adding them to a brand-new grouping.

This highlights the fact that evolution gave us the gift of categorization—which can be incredibly helpful in sorting the mess around us into more meaningful piles and helping us quickly process threats.

Our ancestors used this gift to help their survival, while today, it can often lead us into trouble.


It’s easy to want to categorize our world into ‘black’ and ‘white’ – right or wrong, true or false, mountains or hills.

But the truth of the matter is that our world isn’t nearly so cut-and-dry.

There are plenty of gray areas in between, which can make it difficult to navigate.

Take for example the movie The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain where Reginald Anson finds that the mountain he thought was one only passed as a hill because it falls 16 feet short of the necessary 1000 feet measurement for a mountain.

The villagers near Ffynnon Garw got around this conundrum by piling stones, sand and dirt at its peak – creating an instant “mountain”.

This humorous yet real situation speaks volumes to how there often isn’t a clear dividing line between categories.

It’s this concept of ‘gray area’ that is explored in philosophy via the famous Sorites Paradox – with regards to how many grains of sand constitute a heap versus not-a-heap.

Similarly, legal issues such as abortion have been heavily debated due to tough questions regarding when does an embryo or fetus become a person?

At its core, navigating these grey areas requires us to examine all the sides involved critically — understanding them in context — instead of taking rigid black-or-white stances on matters.

When we embrace this mindset, then more nuanced solutions can be found in order to approach these topics more objectively and without bias.

Finding The Balance Between Narrow And Wide Category Views

Have you ever wondered why some people have a hard time discarding items they find at home, such as mementos and files? This behavior can be partially explained by something psychologists call an underinclusive style of categorization.

It means that people create more categories in their heads, but then allot fewer objects to each category.

On the other hand, there are also those who assign too many things to one category.

They define categories oversimplistically, so much so it often results in stereotyping – all Muslims as terrorists and all left-wingers as Communists, for example.

The key takeaway here is that there needs to be balance when it comes to how we view the world.

The AFC Bournemouth soccer team manager Eddie Howe is a great example of this – he devided the season into “mini-seasons” with four games each and then evaluated their performance before deciding what their next step should be.

This was neither too narrow nor too broad of an outlook.

The Need For Cognitive Closure Versus Cognitive Complexity: A Look At Prejudice And Extremism

Prejudice And Extremism

Else Frenkel-Brunswick’s landmark study from the 1940s has helped us to better understand how people view the world.

Her experiment showed that people usually demonstrate a range of views, from those who need cognitive closure and desire certainty, to those who favor cognitive complexity and are tolerant of ambiguity.

The original experiment featured a series of drawings, beginning with a picture of a cat and ending with a picture of a dog.

Participants would be asked to categorize each drawing.

Those with high prejudice took longer to switch from cats to dogs – or even completely refused all dogs as an option!

This revealed their strong need for something they could easily categorize – in other words, cognitive closure.

At the opposite end of this spectrum are those that prefer cognitive complexity.

These folks see shades of gray in everything, rather than just black and white categories or binary answers.

They often take time when making decisions and find comfort in considering all angles when viewing an issue.

For example, religious extremists lie closer towards the need for closure while moderates tend more towards complexity in comparison.

Tribalism Distorts Our Perception Of Reality, But Supercategories Can Be A Powerful Unifying Force

Tribalism is an extremely pervasive phenomenon in today’s world, and it has the power to distort our perception of reality.

This is especially evident when looking at how tribal epistemology dictates how people view controversial topics such as gun control.

In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, many people on the right-wing resorted to denying that the events had even taken place, instead of simply disagreeing with proposals for increased gun-control measures.

This tendency towards black-and-white thinking can have real consequences in racial situations.

A study from 2006 showed that participants flashed pictures of armed men – some white and others black – were quicker to decide to shoot the armed black man than their white counterpart, and also quicker to decide not to shoot an unarmed White person over an unarmed Black one.

The categorization had become so entrenched that participants were responding instinctively rather than rationally.

But there are ways out of this trap – ‘supercategories’ which override our usual neatly split boxes can be a powerful unifying force in situations such as these.

The University of Delaware study demonstrated this perfectly: when given a choice between Black interviewers wearing either home or away team hats, participants opted for those sporting believing of their own team over skin color

Using Extreme Language Leads To Extreme Thinking

Extreme Thinking

In his book, Black-and-White Thinking, the author discusses the real effects of extreme language on our thought processes.

Through a simple experimental study, he found that when people use extreme or dramatic language in everyday conversations, it leads to more extreme or dramatic thinking than those who spoke using more moderate words.

To demonstrate this point further, he asked students to use certain terms five times a day – some with extreme adjectives like “horrific” and “hopeless” and others with moderate adjectives like “so-so” and “regular”.

At the end of the week, all the students were shown an image of black and white colors which faded into one another—and as a result, labeled by people who used extreme words marked out a much narrower transition zone than those who used moderate words.

The language we use has far-reaching consequences on us and our environment.

Take for example the term ‘depressed’; it has been so overused that now it is just associated with feeling down or sad.

Hence when we hear someone speaks about having clinical depression, we fail to understand its gravity as we think everyone has been depressed once or twice in their life—which ultimately creates a disconnect between understanding mental illness and finding ways to help those suffering from it.

The Power Of Linguistic Frames: How To Recognize And Avoid Being Persuaded By Binary Thinking

Framing is an incredibly powerful tool to use when attempting to persuade someone.

This was evidenced by the Leave campaign in the UK 2016 referendum on Brexit, as their “Take Back Control” slogan effectively harnessed people’s aversion to loss and desire for gain.

Furthermore, the author of “Black-and-White Thinking” argues that every persuasive argument relies on one or more of three major frames: fight versus flight, us versus them, and right versus wrong.

Taking the example of a French vote to ban the niqab: it sought to invoke security concerns (fight versus flight), preserve French values (us versus them) and combat oppression against women (right versus wrong).

Research also confirms how effective these frames can be in persuading others.

A study conducted in 2013 discovered that candidates who used either “we” or “us” more frequently were successful 34 out of 43 times.

Clearly, this binary framing had a huge impact on results.

Wrap Up

The “Black-and-White Thinking” book provides readers with a comprehensive overview of how our brains think in extremes and how we can use this knowledge to make sure we are thinking more clearly.

By recognizing black-and-white framings, we become better equipped to begin exploring gray areas that may have previously been overlooked.

The book ends off with an example of the Sorites paradox which we can apply in real life scenarios.

In this case, it helps us ponder when someone should be held accountable for a wrongdoing – is it 5, 7 or 12 years old? This exercise exercises our cognitive abilities and helps us come up with more logical reasoning when facing difficult situations.

Overall, this book provides nifty tricks that can help us escape from extreme thinking patterns and navigate them toward more balanced ones.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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