A week ago, a crappy picture of a dress popped up on the interwebs, and sparked a seemingly insipid controversy. Before the official blue and black color was announced, people debated its true color and split themselves into #teamblueandblack and #teamwhiteandgold, while feeling baffled that others could see the dress so differently.
This story reminds us that vision is an interpretation of the world, not objective reality.
Most of us think very little about how we perceive color. We don’t think about the fact that our experience of color is just our brains transforming light into useable information, or the fact that nothing is objectively blue or black or white or gold. Typically, our color vision serves us very well, helping us distinguish between foods that are more or less edible, or snow that is white or yellow.
Although, we’ve all seen optical illusions, whether it’s a vase with a face or a Magic Eye poster, our vision generally seems predictable. Besides, we expect that illusions will mess with us, but we don’t expect our vision to fail us in everyday life. As a result, many people were probably experiencing what’s called a meaning threat. Anna Kendrick even tweeted, “If that's not White and Gold the universe is falling apart. Seriously what is happening????” She wasn’t the only person who reacted that way.
The world just ain’t right…
Meaning threats make us question our worlds and cause us to experience confusion, which we often react to with hostility, aggression or denial. When something we take for granted fails us, it suggests that our worlds are no longer predictable. This is scary.
So, instead of being annoyed that I’m still talking about #thedress, consider how a crack in our perceived reality evokes threat in all of us. Even if this story had no effect on you, there are probably other parts of your life where meaning threat pops up, and elicits a similar reaction.
Question your beliefs
Use this story as example of how we experience our beliefs as facts. Think about disagreements you’ve had with others — maybe you’re each perceiving things differently and that neither of you is objectively right. Cultivate a sense of okayness about the subjectivity of your perceptions, and use this information to see the world a bit differently.
Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Namy, L. L., Woolf, N. J., Cramer, K. M., & Schmalz, R. (2011). Psychology: From Inquiry to Understanding. Pearson Canada: Toronto.
Proulx, T., Heine, S. J., & Vohs, K. D. (2010). When is the unfamiliar the uncanny? Meaning affirmation after exposure to absurdist literature, humor, and art. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 817–829.
vanDellen, M. R., Campbell, K. W., Hoyle, R. H., & Bradfield, E. K. (2011). Compensating, resisting, and breaking: A meta-analytic examination of reactions to self-esteem threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 51-74.