Why Did #TheDress Go Viral and Why Did it Happen So Quickly?

 Brian E. Kinghorn

Brian E. Kinghorn

Brian E. Kinghorn, PhD
Marshall University
kinghorn@marshall.edu

On Wednesday, February 25, 2015, a poorly photographed image of an average looking dress with the caption “guys please help me – is this dress white and gold, or blue and black?” was posted on Tumblr. Early the next day BuzzFeed reposted the picture, and by Friday morning #TheDress had gone from obscurity to an international phenomenon.

Nearly a year later, just when we thought we had put #TheDress behind us for good, a Super Bowl commercial for avocados reminded us of that divisive little dress. The commercial begins with aliens walking through a futuristic museum containing the “bounty of Earth” including a Rubik’s cube, a collection of emoji, Chia pets, Scott Baio, and “the white and gold dress that caused a civil war.” I used this commercial to introduce a discussion of #TheDress and #DressGate in my Honors Psychology of Social Media course at Marshall University this semester.  The moment I mentioned #TheDress I could hear and feel a collective groan from my students.  With so much viral content on the web flaming out almost as quickly as it explodes and proliferates, I found it unusual that something from a year ago still produced such a visceral response from my students.  It begs the questions:

  1. How did this photo posted by a random person in Scotland become in less than two days what The Washington Post dubbed the “drama that divided a planet”?
  2. What is it about #TheDress that has made such a lasting impact on our collective psyches?

It started with perception. The world seemed divided into two camps: those who saw it as #whiteandgold and those who saw it as #blackandblue. Most explanations of #DressGate focus on the psychology and physiology of visual perception. My favorite (because of their simplicity) are Jonathan Corum’s New York Times article and Pascal Wallisch’s Slate article. As Corum put it, “our perception of color depends on interpreting the amount of light in a room or scene. When cues about the ambient light are missing, people may perceive the same color in different ways.” Thus, the skewed white balance on the photo and lack of visual cues about the lighting in the room make it difficult for us to determine whether the dress is white and gold in shadows or blue and black in bright light. If your brain decides the dress is in shadow, it will compensate for the ambiguity by automatically filtering out the bluish light hitting your eyes and you will see the dress as white with gold lace. In contrast, if your brain perceives the dress in the photo as being washed-out in bright light, your brain will automatically filter out the yellowish and reddish hues of light so you see the dress as black and blue.

I believe that the reason #TheDress became a viral phenomenon so quickly is largely related to our egos. That dress photo may be very unsettling because it suggests the possibility that two people can be looking at the same picture on the same screen in the same room and one of them will see it as white and gold while the other will see it as blue and black; AND they both believe they are absolutely telling the truth about what they are seeing.

People generally have difficulty accepting the reality that other people can possibly see the world so fundamentally differently. How is it possible that one of us is not lying about what we see?  Wouldn’t we prefer that someone is lying rather than accept the fact that someone who seems so reasonable and sane could possibly be seeing the exact same image so differently?

Nations go to war over similar collective cognitive conflicts when groups of people that perceive world in fundamentally different ways endeavor to “proselytize” their thinking by force.  Whether religious or political conflicts, like revolutionary or civil wars, or the conquerors of nations, the cause of conflicts can often be reduced to one idea: “we cannot both be right, and since one of us has to be right, it is going to be me.”  Even when you strip away all of the colonial overtones, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave masterfully illustrates the potentially lethal outcome of this line of thinking when the cave dwellers kill the enlightened persons who attempt to show them the light they had found.

Extremist perceptions can precipitate wars of words and possibly even violent outcomes. For example, a debilitating divisiveness in politics often results in gridlocks between opposing parties. Politicians often see the same national statistics and problems but propose fundamentally different solutions.  On a lighter note, we saw a similar seemingly irrational divide between the scores of swooning fans of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series debating whether the heroine Bella should marry Edward the vampire or Jacob the werewolf.  When it comes to candy bars, we seem to be okay saying “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.”  When it comes to more serious matters of religion, politics, love, and truth, we cannot seem to make the same concessions.

Thinking of the phenomenon of #TheDress in this light makes sense as to why it captivated the world so quickly (BuzzFeed’s 8 posts about the dress had a combined 41 million views from across the globe in less than 24 hours). In a very real (albeit petty or insignificant) way, #TheDress challenged most people’s conceptions about the world regarding what is “real.”  Further, for those who saw white and gold, there was greater potential for cognitive dissonance and distress when it was revealed that the actual dress was blue and black. As one of my colleagues jokingly put it last year, “I am seriously thinking that this entire thing is a big joke on me … like a huge Internet conspiracy … now someone is going to tell me they REALLY did put a man on the moon.”

We really did put men on the moon; #TheDress really is blue and black, and some people really did see white and gold. As psychological scientists, we recognize that reality is in the eye of the beholders, or at least that individuals create their own reality through their idiosyncratic perceptions of the world.  Yet even when we know something, we often cannot escape the sometimes overwhelming emotional responses that something like #TheDress can evoke in us.

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