Seeing the World in Black and White

Friday, July 17, 2009

By Wray Herbert

When the Chrysler car company released its new model Dodge Coronet in 1967, the theme of its ad campaign was the “White Hat Special.” Some of the ads featured cartoon cowboys riding around “keepin’ the prices low,” while others had the ubiquitous “Dodge Girl” in her signature white Stetson, chirping: “Only the good guys could put together a deal like this.”

These ads didn’t need any elaboration. Madison Avenue knew the potential buyers had all been raised on film and TV Westerns, and knew the symbolism of white hats. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger—cinematic heroes wore white hats, and bad guys wore black. It was all very simple.

Simple, but maybe not all that original. The colors white and black have carried layers of moral meaning since long before American’ infatuation with cowboys and automobiles, and some scientists believe that those associations may be automatic and universal and ancient. Indeed, blackness and whiteness may be wired into our neurons, and tightly tangled up with notions of sin and virtue and cleanliness and dirt.

Two University of Virginia psychologists recently decided to explore this provocative idea in the laboratory. Gary Sherman and Gerald Clore wanted to know if common metaphors may be more than mere rhetorical devices, if in fact they might be deep embodiments of moral thinking. They decided to test the link between white and virtue (and black and sin) as part of this larger question.

To do this, the psychologists adapted a reaction-time test from the 1930s, called the Stroop Test. Readers may know this from the Internet, where it circulates as a kind of parlor game. It’s the one in which the names of colors are printed in different colors—say the word blue in yellow ink—and you must very rapidly indicate the ink color rather than the meaning. It’s hard, because our mind wants to read the word—and slow reaction time is taken as a sign of cognitive disconnect or conflict.

In Sherman and Clore’s version of the Stroop, volunteers read not the names of colors but words with strong moral overtones: greed and honesty, for example. Some of the words were printed in black and some in white, and they flashed rapidly on a screen. As with the original Stroop, a fast reaction time was taken as evidence that a connection was mentally automatic and natural; hesitation was taken as a sign that a connection didn’t ring true. The researchers wanted to see if the volunteers automatically linked immorality with blackness, as in black ink, and virtue with whiteness.

And they did, so quickly that the connections couldn’t possibly be deliberate. Just as we unthinkingly—almost unconsciously—“know” a lemon is yellow, we instantly know that sin and crime are black; grace and virtue, white.

Why would this be? Well, one possibility is that the metaphor is more complex, embodying not just right and wrong but purity and contagion, too. Think of the metaphor “new fallen snow”: It’s not only white, it’s virginal and unadulterated, like a wedding dress. And blackness not only discolors it; it stains it, taints its purity. With this in mind, the psychologists ran another experiment, adding this idea of contagion, feeling morally dirty. They deliberately primed some volunteers’ immoral thoughts by having them read a story about a self-serving, immoral lawyer, and compared them to volunteers primed for ethical thinking.

The idea was that people who were feeling morally dirty would be quicker to make the connection between immorality and blackness on the moral Stroop test, which is exactly what they found. And what’s more, they found this with much looser definitions of morality and immorality—including words like dieting, gossip, duty, partying, helping, and so forth. In other words, those primed for misbehavior linked blackness not only with crime and cheating but with being irresponsible, unreliable, self-centered slackers.

This is pretty convincing in itself, but the researchers wanted to look at the question yet another way. If the association between sin and blackness really does reflect a concern about dirt and impurity, then this association should be stronger for people who are preoccupied with purity and pollution. Such fastidiousness often manifests as personal cleanliness, and a proxy for personal cleansing might be the desire for cleaning products. They tested this string of psychological connections in a final study, again ending with the Stroop test.

The results were unambiguous. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, those who expressed the strongest desire for an array of cleaning products were also those most likely to link morality with white, immorality with black. But here’s the really interesting part: The only products with this power were Dove soap and Crest toothpaste, products for personal cleanliness; things like Lysol and Windex did not activate the sin-blackness connection. In short, concerns about filth and personal hygiene appear central to seeing the moral universe in black and white.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “We’re Only Human” blog at Selections from the blog also appear regularly at and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:16 PM


At 10:46 PM , Blogger Greg said...

Fascinating! Is there any work on the potential racial overtones of this?

At 9:35 PM , Blogger Blogger with Ocd said...

Veddy veddy interesting. I plan to visit your blog often.

At 3:05 PM , Blogger PoetryWeb said...

As I understand it, some Eastern cultures have black or red wedding dresses. White is considered a symbol of mourning.

How does this play into the study here, that discusses the "automatic, universal, and ancient" black/white truths?