As the neurologist Robert Burton has noted
, ambiguity or confusion is so difficult for many of us to bear that we instead retreat from it into a feeling of certainty, believing we know
something without any doubts, even when we actually don't and often can't know. Those of us who have trouble with such discomfort often resort to
black-and-white thinking instead. Rather than feeling uncertain or ambivalent, struggling with areas of gray, we reduce that complexity to either/or.
We may define one idea or point of view as bad (black) and reject it, aligning ourselves with the good (white) perspective. Feelings of
anger and self-righteousness often accompany this process, bolstering our conviction that we are in the right and the other side in the wrong. Hatred for
the rejected point of view keeps ambiguity and uncomfortable complexity from re-entering the field.
Black-and-white thinking reflects the psychological process known as splitting. When we feel unable to tolerate the tension aroused by complexity,
we "resolve" that complexity by splitting it into two simplified and opposing parts, usually aligning ourselves with one of them and rejecting the
other. As a result, we may feel a sort of comfort in believing we know something with absolute certainty; at the same time, we've over-simplified a complex
On the emotional front, splitting comes into play when we feel hostile toward the people we love. Holding onto feelings of love in the presence of anger
and even hatred is a difficult thing for most of us to do. Sometimes hatred proves so powerful that it overwhelms and eclipses love, bringing the
relationship to an end. More often we repress awareness of our hostile feelings; or we might split them off and direct them elsewhere, away from
the people we care about.
In other words, splitting as a psychological defense mechanism resolves emotional ambivalence -- love and hatred toward the same person -- by splitting off
one half of those feelings and directing them elsewhere, away from the loved one.
One of the helpful functions of society is to provide us with outlets for that anger -- to identify places where it's okay to feel and express (split off)
aggression, even hatred. Consider the uses of professional sports, for example, where most spectators identify with one team or competitor and wish to
crush the opponent. Not only does this provide a needed outlet for competitive urges, it also allows us to channel many aggressive feelings away from our
intimate relationships and express them in a safer context.
Warfare, with an identified enemy combatant, may also serve the same function, providing a sanctioned outlet for our aggression. In times of war, splitting
becomes powerfully evident: people at home "come together" more easily, put differences aside and unite against the common enemy. For a time, it can create
a sense of domestic harmony and unification, especially important when confronting an existential threat from the outside.