The term “cognitive style” refers to a characteristic or habitual way of thinking. Two opposing cognitive styles are the black and white style and the indecisive style.

The black and white way of thinking sees things in absolutes—good or bad, right or wrong. It is rigid and concrete, not malleable or open to alternative perspectives. Judgments, positions and opinions are reached quickly and firmly. Issues are not evaluated with a fresh mind. Instead, they are oversimplified and quickly forced into existing mental categories.

The indecisive cognitive style goes too far in the opposite direction. Rather than seeing things in black or white, this style sees too many shades of gray. It obsesses about the pros and cons and wastes time repeatedly going back and forth. With this style, one may avoid making decisions and bearing the responsibility that goes along with making them.

It would be an oversimplification to say that some people have one style and others have another. People are complex. Some people may have a black and white cognitive style when thinking about social issues, but be very openminded in their taste in music. Others may be quite indecisive when struggling with parenting decisions but make quick and accurate decisions at work.

A culture of ‘us against them’

In our culture, we have a number of forces which seem to encourage a binary way of thinking. We have a polarized two-party political system, we have prosecuting attorneys pitted against defense attorneys, we have the home team against the visiting team, and with race, religion and sexuality we have those who are like us and those who are different. It’s easy to get sucked in to identifying with, and rooting for, one side or the other and living a life of “us against them.”

Why do we become so polarized? Why is it so hard to see the other side’s point of view? Part of the answer may have to do with our need to have a sense of identity. If I identify with this political party, that football team and a certain position on a controversial topic, all this may help me to feel clear about who I am and what I stand for. This may afford feelings of inner strength and a sense of predictability in navigating the world. “I am this kind of person so I do this.” To see the other point of view may disrupt my sense of self.

Rigid thinking pushes others away

Holding tightly to a rigid mental framework keeps us connected to those who think similarly, and separate from those who think otherwise. Like the wildebeest crossing the crocodile infested Mara River, there is safety in numbers. But the wildebeest probably don’t mind if they alienate the crocodiles with their separatist ways. We, on the other hand, have a greater investment in getting along with each other. Often our family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues have different values and beliefs than we do.

An indecisive style can result in costly passivity and inaction. An entrenched black and white mindset can alienate those we live with and those we love. Once again, balance is the key. Notice your own cognitive style. Listen closely to the way you think, your internal dialogue and the degree to which you consider things before you take your position. Listen also to the feedback you get from others as they may be reflecting valuable information about how you think.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /