The Situationist

The Situation of Black and White

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 29, 2009

Black WhiteOver on We’re Only Human, Wray Herbert has another of his characteristically superb posts, this one about the automatic associations with black and white. Here’s a sample.

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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.

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To read the entire post (which is well worth the click), click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Metaphor,” “The Primitive Appeal of The Color Red,” Coloring Situation,” The Color of Sex Appeal,” The Situation of Hair Color,”The Unconscious Situation of our Consciousness – Part IV,” “The Situation of Body Temperature,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.

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One Response to “The Situation of Black and White”

  1. Jada Benjamin said

    do you have e-mail newsletter?

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