When a Dress Gets all Over your Objective Truth

You saw it. It’s blue and black. Or maybe it’s white and gold. But what’s more surprising is that a whole lot of people seem to agree that it matters.

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Don’t get me wrong: I find people getting angry over color perception dorkishly charming. Buy why?

I think some it is a fully self-aware and self-amused embracing of refreshingly vapid fluff. After arguing about violence and politicians and even the Oscars, it’s fun to participate in a brutal division that cuts across identities and beliefs and doesn’t really matter anyway.

But besides that, I think that a lot of people are truly shocked and even upset by this difference in color perception. How could people see something so differently than what you see so clearly? Or, more specifically, how could all those other people be so wrong?

Because seeing is supposed to be believing. It’s the most basic level of your status as objective observer of the world, seeing things as they are in the one true reality. Right?

That’s one way to look at it.

But why should people see the same thing? They’re different people? Our views are shaped by our individual traits, experiences, and contexts, and that applies to basic color vision just as it does to complicated opinions.

Maybe this dress is an exceptionally ambiguous stimulus, but who’s to say that differences in perception don’t happen on a smaller scale all the time? As analysis of the dress shows, color vision can be influenced by the lighting and background conditions present as well as the ones we are most used to. Some people have wondered if emotions might play a role. On a more general level, there is evidence that the language we use to describe color influences the way we see it.

Even when most of us nominally agree on what color things are, color is a good gateway drug to thinking about perceptual relativity and theory of mind (the idea that someone else’s thoughts are different from your own). At some point, you may have gone down the thought train that starts with “is your ‘red’ the same as my ‘red’?” and ends up with something like “is your ‘love’ the same as my ‘love’?”

As long as the language we use to describe our experiences syncs up with most of the people around us, we can ignore the fact that we occupy different headspaces, but when your white is the same as my blue, the lack of known objective truth slaps us in the face.

Of course it’s not just color. Piaget said that kids develop a theory of mind by age seven, but there are plenty of adults who have trouble wrapping their heads around the fact that other people’s mental experiences can be different from their own.

You see it with philosophers making big claims about “obvious” and “self-evident” truths, without stopping to ask which people these ideas are obvious to. You see online commenters declaring which celebrities “just not attractive” as a fact, as if their personal attractions were the universal indicator of everyone’s tastes. You see one set of people claiming that every human’s sexuality must be inherently fluid and another set claiming that no one’s can be, without considering the possibility that not everyone experiences sexuality as they do. You see every set of religious, spiritual, and cosmological beliefs (or lack thereof) declared to be not only ridiculous but also impossible to believe by those who don’t buy it.

It’s understandable, I guess, but funny how people assume that they can read other people’s minds, even if they can’t really read their own.

And hey, if we want to go along with the color metaphor, I am personally perceived as white or not by different observers in different contexts, so I see no reason why the same thing couldn’t happen to a dress.

So is there a pure, naked truth under that dress? Is there a “true” color? I guess depends on definitions, and I’m not sure it matters anyway. Sure we can look at the dress in a more standardly-lit photo or calculate the wavelength of emitted light, but most of us define “color” as a subjective experience caused by lights of a particular wavelength, not the wavelength itself. When I think “blue,” I don’t think of 450 nm, but of the sense I feel when I look at an ocean. In that sense, people’s experiences don’t have to align in order to be true or real.

For the record, I saw pale blue and gold. Interpret as you wish.

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