Caitlin McNeill/Swiked
Source: Caitlin McNeill/Swiked

Last Saturday, my sister asked if I’d heard about the dress that was making its way across the internet like wildfire. Apparently people saw it as one of two different sets of colors, and scientists were weighing in on why people would see the same dress differently. I assumed it was one of those basic color differences such as some people saw it as blue and others saw it as green, and didn’t give it much thought.

I looked up “what color is the dress” on google images and images of a white and gold dress kept popping up. I figured I must not be looking at the right image because there was no ambiguity to what color the dress was. I finally settled on an image and showed it to my brother-in-law, asking him what color he thought it was. He looked at it for a few seconds and reported that it looked blue and black. I was shocked. What was wrong with him? How could this obviously white and gold dress be blue and black? I asked my sister what color she saw, and she concurred that it was white and gold. Even my niece saw white-gold. I went home and showed the dress to my husband, he thought it looked blue and black. I texted my sister and she said that her husband felt vindicated that someone else saw it correctly as both his parents reported seeing white- gold. My husband showed the image at work and reported back to me which of his colleagues saw it as white-gold and which saw it as blue-black. I was surprised but happy to find out that at least half of the people saw it as white-gold. I asked the person who watches my child, she saw it as blue-black and her husband saw it as white-gold. I asked my own colleagues and was a bit disappointed to find out that a good friend saw it as blue-black when I had thought she would see it the way I did. Even celebrities were weighing in on what color they thought the dress was and cellphone covers were being created depicting the two variations of the dress. I read the articles about the dress, finding the explanations by vision scientists very interesting and informative, and was amused that the journalists always noted what color every person cited in the article saw the dress as.  

One day earlier this week I realized that this dress is not only entertaining, it is a lesson in social psychology. This photo of a dress is creating a minimal group paradigm across the globe. People are finding themselves divided into different groups based on whether they saw an image of a dress as white-gold or blue-black. I myself had fond feelings towards my sister and niece for seeing it the same way I did. My brother-in-law was happy my husband saw the dress the way he did. I just received a call from one of my best friends and when I told her what I was writing this post, she mentioned that she sees it as blue-black and I felt disappointed. Don’t tell me you haven’t felt the same way. Were you excited that your favorite celebrity saw it the same as you? Disappointed that your friend did not? The distinction between people who see it as white-gold and those who see it as blue-black is not important or meaningful (that we know of), and yet we find ourselves taking a stand and joining a group. We like those who see it the way we do a little more, and feel a little more distant from those who see it differently.

Social psychologists have been studying this phenomenon for decades (Tajfel, 1970). They started out separating groups using very minimal methods such as assigning people to Group A or Group B using the toss of a coin (hence the name Minimal Group Paradigm). The psychologists then would have the groups engage in tasks where they had to allocate resources to people to see if they gave more resources to members of their own group, which would show that they preferred people in their own group to those in the other group. The goal was to keep adding more meaningful distinctions to the groups to see at what point people began to identify with and prefer their own group. I think the psychologists were shocked by what they found—simply telling people they were part of Group A or Group B based on a coin toss led people to prefer members of their own group. Randomly giving people red shirts or blue shirts to wear does the same thing. Psychologists have theories about why we do this, though I don’t think they all agree on the cause. Whatever the reason, the result is the same – we like people more who see the dress the way we do.

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