Thinking in Absolutes: Healthier Than You Realize (Part 1 of 3)

According to the principles of cognitive therapy, black-and-white thinking is a major cause of emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. Also known as all-or-nothing thinking, many cognitive therapists define it as seeing things in black-or-white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure. When a young woman on a diet eats a spoonful of ice cream, she tells herself, ‘I’ve blown my diet completely!’ This thought upsets her so much that she gobbles down an entire quart. This kind of thinking is also evident in people with temper problems. They describe their anger as going from ‘1 to 100’ in a flash. They find it difficult to distinguish between minor misunderstandings and outrageous injustices because they haven’t trained themselves to do so.

Does identifying the inherent unhealthiness of black-and-white thinking mean that it’s, in principle, irrational to think at all? Or to distinguish between the absolutism of right and wrong? Not according to this cognitive therapist. The issue with black-and-white thinking arises only when a person fails to make rational, objective distinctions. When discussing principle, there are, indeed, numerous areas in which ‘shades of gray’ do not apply: For example, that it’s always wrong to initiate force, or that it’s never right to perpetrate a fraud against an innocent person. Or that the law of gravity always applies under the proper conditions. The truth of these statements in no way eliminates the existence of rational distinctions.

For example: ‘It’s raining today. I can’t have my picnic. That’s OK. Tomorrow will be clear, according to the forecast, and I can do it then. Or next weekend.’ Or: ‘I blew it today. I didn’t exercise. It’s regrettable, but it has no bearing on tomorrow. Tomorrow I will exercise, first thing. And I’ll do it the next day, as well.’ An anxiety-ridden or depressed person, riddled with all-or-nothing thinking, fails to make such ordinary distinctions in aspects of his daily life, and suffers accordingly. It’s not that he’s intellectually incapable of making the distinctions—it’s just that his emotions get in the way.

H.L. Mencken, writing about the psychology of murder and crime, made a fascinating point that dramatically reveals the need for rational distinctions. In an article entitled, ‘A Good Man Gone Wrong,’ Mencken wrote of the case of Henry Judd Gray. In 1925, Ruth Snyder, a Queens housewife, began an affair with Henry Judd Gray, a corset salesman. She soon began to plan the murder of her husband, enlisting the help of her new lover. Snyder first persuaded her husband to ‘purchase’ insurance. With the assistance of an insurance agent who forged his signature (who was subsequently sent to prison) a $48,000 life insurance policy was initiated that paid extra if an unexpected act of violence killed the victim. Ruth then made a series of varied attempts to kill him, all of which he survived. On March 20, 1927, Snyder and her secret lover abducted Albert Snyder and stuffed his nose full of chloroform-soaked rags. They then staged his death as part of a burglary gone bad. However, their ‘perfect crime’ was poorly conceived. Detectives noted that the burglar left little evidence of breaking into the house. Also, the behavior of Mrs. Snyder was not perfectly in tandem with her story of a terrorized wife witnessing her husband being killed. The evidence eventually revealed the killers’ guilt, and both were given the death penalty.

Writing of the murderous Mr. Gray, who helped Mrs. Snyder kill her husband, Mencken says: ‘He emerges’as the almost perfect model of the Y.M.C.A. alumnus, the  conscientious husband and father, the Christian business man, the virtuous and God-fearing American. It was his very virtue, festering within him, that brought him to his appalling doom.’ In short, according to Mencken, Gray was not a criminal personality. He was a basically good man who got involved in an extramarital affair over which he felt disgusted and horrified. A true criminal would feel no guilt over such bad judgment, but Gray—given that he possessed a conscience—did . And this is what did him in.

Continued in Tomorrow’s Column