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The Color of Sin - Why the Good Guys Wear White
November 10, 2009 11:34 AM   Subscribe

When the Chrysler car company released its new model Dodge Coronet in 1967, the theme of its ad campaign was the "White Hat Special," with some ads featuring the "Dodge Girl" in her signature white Stetson, saying that "Only the good guys could put together a deal like this." These ads didn't need any elaboration. Madison Avenue knew the potential buyers had all been raised on film and TV Westerns, and knew the symbolism of white hats. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger — cinematic heroes wore white hats, and bad guys wore black. It was all very simple. 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 (abstract).

Blackness and whiteness may be wired into our neurons, and tightly tangled up with notions of sin and virtue and cleanliness and dirt, according to research by doctoral student Gary D. Sherman and professor Gerald L. Clore, from the University of Virginia Psychology Department (print view). Clore and Sherman tested the concept of grounding of metaphors with a method similar to the the original studies performed by J. Ridley Stroop. The result showing something of the Stroop effect, but instead of displaying a delay in stating the name of colors because of the color of the text, there was a lag in identifying positive and negative words when colored black or white. And the amount of delay changed when the participants were primed to think about immorality.
First, they administered the color identification test with moral and immoral words. Then they asked the participants to hand-copy a very short first-person story about a workplace incident. Half the stories had ethical endings and half had unethical endings. Then they issued the color identification test again.

For those who had little trouble with the color identification initially, exposure to the unethical story made it harder to identify word color when it didn't match the moral/immoral dimension of the word. "This shows you can bring this out in people," said Sherman. "We were struck how easily it could be moved around."

But even more interesting was that for those who struggled more with the identification in the first test, priming immorality made these participants better at naming the color. This was a bit puzzling.

Clore believes that for those already thinking about immorality, becoming even more attuned to it helped bring it to consciousness, where it could be controlled.

"If you make something obvious, people appear to be able to regulate it," he said. "What we find with emotion is that if you make something really salient, people are better at making proper discrimination. By making it salient, people got rid of it."
A third study was performed, in which they asked people to rate several consumer products, some of which were cleaning products. Those who ranked cleaning products most highly turned out to be the individuals who had the hardest time identifying the colors when they didn't match the moral dimension of the words. This last test is associated with the Macbeth effect (abstract), where physical cleanliness is psychologically linked to concerns for moral purity.

More fun with the Stroop test: Neuroscience for Kids, and the Stroop test and Mount Everest.
posted by filthy light thief (42 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Makes sense. This goes back to the Sapir-Whorf thing where all cultures have at least two words for color, equating to "white" and "black." It's pretty natural that we'd neurologically prefer "white" since we're diurnal creatures that are vulnerable in the dark.
posted by meadowlark lime at 11:37 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


tell your momma and your papa-- sometimes good guys don't wear white
posted by dersins at 11:37 AM on November 10, 2009 [3 favorites]


I want a gray fedora.
posted by fuq at 11:38 AM on November 10, 2009


Damn skippy.
posted by The White Hat at 11:45 AM on November 10, 2009


I'm not convinced. There's a giant extrapolation here--that what people do on an abstract test=what they think about things. This type of cognitive science tries to tell us things about processes we don't see. Its akin to spontaneous generation--the theory that life spontaneously generates itself. It was based on the fact that when inanimate materials are put into a box, such as meat, maggots seem to spontaneously grow.

The theory of spontaneous generation was wrong--researchers were not aware of the life cycle of maggots because they couldn't see the were already present in the materials because they didn't see the earlier forms in the life cycle of maggots--they could not be seen without a microscope.

It is the same with these sorts of experiments. We will know the answers to them when we can decode the signals in the brain and actually read our thoughts and what they "say." Until then, this is pure speculation.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:48 AM on November 10, 2009


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...

posted by filthy light thief


Best eponysterical ever.
posted by gimonca at 11:49 AM on November 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


Did any of those westerns ever have a false flag episode where the villain pretended to be good by wearing a white hat, until his evil plan started to come to fruition and he revealed his true millinery colors?
posted by stavrogin at 11:53 AM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Why the hell did the Raiders ever quit selling those 'Real Men Wear Black' t-shirts?
posted by box at 11:57 AM on November 10, 2009


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 (abstract).

So if I could come up with a culture which, say, associated white with death, then they'd all go home? Maybe people would even make movies where the good guy dressed in black and the bad guy in white or something.
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:04 PM on November 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


Did any of those westerns ever have a false flag episode where the villain pretended to be good by wearing a white hat, until his evil plan started to come to fruition and he revealed his true millinery colors?

The bad guys wore black link is actually to an AMC TV review of Clint Eastwood's Cowboy Career, which notes
In the old days, the hero wore a white hat and rode a white horse and the villain was always dressed in black," says Clint Eastwood. But his work in Westerns changed all that. Some consider him to be the ultimate anti-hero but, the truth is, his characters aren't all bad. On scale of cowboy hats, see how each rates. Remember white hats mean good; black hats mean badass.
Ironmouth - (re)read the Miller-McCune link. There were initially two tests, checking the speed at which people could identify positive or negative words when set in black or white text, then identifying text color for positive or negative words. Then there was a primed test, with immorality brought into the test subject's mind, which changed the reply rate. Granted, the above-linked articles are mostly extrapolations and abstracts, not complete write-ups, so digging into the actual testing processes is not possible at this moment.

So if I could come up with a culture which, say, associated white with death, then they'd all go home? Maybe people would even make movies where the good guy dressed in black and the bad guy in white or something.

Yes, I thought of that, too. This seems to be very western-centric, which isn't addressed in anything I could find on the study. Also, bad/good isn't always a plain duality. In some works, you root against the hero and for the villain, or it swaps back and forth. Maybe you're not supposed to like anyone, even though there's a clear "right and wrong" to things.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:07 PM on November 10, 2009


It is the same with these sorts of experiments. We will know the answers to them when we can decode the signals in the brain and actually read our thoughts and what they "say." Until then, this is pure speculation.

To be fair, this is essentially demanding evidence and then insisting that every form of evidence available to us be thrown out. What you're generally referring to as "thoughts" are themselves complex arrangements of lots of processes that "we don't see." Pure introspection is a poor indicator of most features of cognition and positing some set of unobservable (or at least not directly observable in real time) mechanisms is only as suspect in cognitive science as it is in any other natural science.

That being said, I heartily agree that the conclusions here (at least as presented on a couple of these pages) are overreaching and stink of confirmation bias. Asking almost exclusively white kids who are almost exclusively raised in the same region with the same cultural memes floating around barely constitutes a beginning of the research to establish the broad theoretical claims being tossed around here. (About two minutes with google will expose you to a fairly wide array of cultural attitudes on the color of white that at least leave this hypothesis with more work to do than the various authors seem to be assuming.)
posted by el_lupino at 12:08 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


So this is why Cary Elwes' team of evil, corporate storm-chasers drove sleek, black SUVs.
posted by brundlefly at 12:08 PM on November 10, 2009


Hopalong Cassidy, my favorite childhood cowboy, and a "good guy" wore a black hat. So there.
posted by cccorlew at 12:09 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ah yes, neurological hard wiring. The ultimate appeal to nature and a ready fig leaf for fascists throughout history. Bring back the curse of Canaan, I say. At least in that case your cards are on the table.
posted by felix betachat at 12:13 PM on November 10, 2009


Seconding the Hopalong Cassidy...
posted by Ron Thanagar at 12:16 PM on November 10, 2009


When it comes to food, white stuff like flour, sugar, and milk combine to make some pretty sinful dishes. When it comes to finance, I much prefer being in the black.
posted by hoppytoad at 12:17 PM on November 10, 2009


And maybe NIGHT = DANGER, DAY = SAFER effect?
posted by Ron Thanagar at 12:18 PM on November 10, 2009


Ah yes, neurological hard wiring. The ultimate appeal to nature and a ready fig leaf for fascists throughout history. Bring back the curse of Canaan, I say. At least in that case your cards are on the table.

u mad?
posted by meadowlark lime at 12:28 PM on November 10, 2009


So this is why the heroes in SF movies are never threatened by a white hole.
posted by Naberius at 12:29 PM on November 10, 2009


But here’s the really interesting part: The only products with this power were Dove soap and Crest toothpaste, products for personal cleanliness; things like Lysol and Windex did not activate the sin-blackness connection. In short, concerns about filth and personal hygiene appear central to seeing the moral universe in black and white.

This bears out. I would describe myself as both open-minded and unwashed.
posted by invitapriore at 12:36 PM on November 10, 2009


This reminds me of L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s series The Saga of Recluce. White is the color of "chaos", white light is formed by combining may other colors of light, and in these books, white is generally considered to be evil. Black is the color of "order", and is generally considered to represent good. (Yes, I am aware of perspective changes later in the series.)

That always struck me as an interesting twist to the stories. In many other fantasy stories, white magic is "good" and black magic is "evil." For many characters in this series, it's just the opposite.
posted by xedrik at 12:39 PM on November 10, 2009


I also find it a bit odd that Chrysler tries to sell cars by featuring a woman roped up on her back... Honda never did that to Mr. Opportunity.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:43 PM on November 10, 2009


Another scientific theory completely destroyed by Batman.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:51 PM on November 10, 2009


So studies of Americans, soaked in puritanical Christianity and with a legacy of vicious racism that labels people "black" and "white, and for that matter shaped by a century of mass media advertising, are supposed to demonstrate ancient hardwiring?

What I'm seeing demonstrated is the stupidity and arrogance of people who think that a small sample of their own culture proves something about everyone everywhere.

Also, I propose an immediate ban on psychological studies of American college undergraduates that make wider claims than "this applies to American college undergraduates." I have long been suspicious when reading psychology texts that so many sweeping conclusions are drawn from studies of this rarified and homogenous group.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:01 PM on November 10, 2009 [9 favorites]


I have always hated the black = bad wiring of our society.
posted by kathrineg at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2009


I feel bad that I don't have permission to look at Hopalong Cassidy. I do get to look at this good guy, though.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:09 PM on November 10, 2009


So, nowadays the people I see wearing white hats are all pimps and the people wearing black ones are usually priests...

Ok, I guess the theory is still pretty sound.
posted by quin at 1:20 PM on November 10, 2009


What about the white suits worn by Swan and Scarface in the ouevre of Brian DePalma? Hunh? HUNH!?!?!?
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:21 PM on November 10, 2009


When the Chrysler car company released its new model Dodge Coronet in 1967, the theme of its ad campaign was the "White Hat Special," with some ads featuring the "Dodge Girl" in her signature white Stetson, saying that "Only the good guys could put together a deal like this." These ads didn't need any elaboration. Madison Avenue knew the potential buyers had all been raised on film and TV Westerns, and knew the symbolism of white hats.

Madison Avenue in the 60's, you say?

*retains stoic expression; vein twitches in forehead*
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:27 PM on November 10, 2009 [4 favorites]


"I want a gray fedora."

Screw that. I want a gray Stetson.
posted by potch at 1:42 PM on November 10, 2009


Stavrogin, Rustler's Rhapsody sort of does that, but it's a parody western. Cool post, even if we all appear at first to be more interested in the framing than the content.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:45 PM on November 10, 2009


So studies of Americans, soaked in puritanical Christianity and with a legacy of vicious racism that labels people "black" and "white, and for that matter shaped by a century of mass media advertising, are supposed to demonstrate ancient hardwiring?

Aherm, yes. Racism. According to the researchers:
"The important thing is that our notion about impurity and blackness did not originate with notions of race," said Clore. "But once you have black and white apparent in skin tones and you also have them in a moral/immoral context, it can become a compelling metaphor."

"The basic research was not about race," added Sherman. "And if race did not exist, we think this would still exist. But its existence does bring to mind potential connections to race."
They did a little dance around the issue, but I agree that there are social norms that are not addressed in these tests. If they pushed for a multi-national study, then it would be interesting.

Another scientific theory completely destroyed by Batman.

I disagree: he was something of an anti-hero. He didn't play by the rules, and he used brutal tactics in some cases. He is no paladin to the rescue, he's the moral thug.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:00 PM on November 10, 2009


In Barkadov's film of Tolstoy's War and Peace the villains (except Napoleon), i. e. Anatole, Helene, and Dolokhov, are the only speaking blonde actors in the movie.

I am sure this is highly meaningful and pertinent!
posted by bukvich at 2:16 PM on November 10, 2009


So studies of Americans, soaked in puritanical Christianity and with a legacy of vicious racism that labels people "black" and "white, and for that matter shaped by a century of mass media advertising, are supposed to demonstrate ancient hardwiring?

I'm not quite sure how you apply puritanical Christianity to the adoption of black the color equating bad, unless you're stating that it simply resulted in a cultural openness to adopt a simplified moral outlook of good / bad. Can you expand on this? Off the top of my head, I just can't think of anything in Christianity that enforces the viewpoint that the color black is bad. Priests wear black, the puritans wore black, etc.
posted by Atreides at 2:26 PM on November 10, 2009


Atreides, I was thinking of the simple moral outlook, but actually, googling reminds me that sin and the devil are black.

"My heart was black with sin, until the Saviour came in. His precious blood I know, has washed me white as snow. "
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:41 PM on November 10, 2009


The Ford T was black.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 2:42 PM on November 10, 2009


Yeah, this is of course ridiculous. The fact that white is identified with "good" and black with "bad" in our culture means that you would expect people to react that way. It doesn't mean that those color associations are genetically predetermined. I bet if you tested red with "stop", green with "go" and red and green with "Christmas" you would find the same effect.
posted by delmoi at 4:16 PM on November 10, 2009


For clarification: the studies are looking at time required to identify words as positive or negative based on the color of the text, what happens when the text changes color from black to white, and how priming the test subjects with morality tales changes the response time. In the example images shown here, the word saint is shown in black and white. According to the write-ups, it takes people a fraction of a second longer to identify "saint" as a positive word when that word is in black. This is not asking "are black things bad," but looking at how the color of text can tweak the perception of a notion.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:03 PM on November 10, 2009


Simpsons did it (from the movie):

Mayor Quimby: I hereby declare a state of emergency: Code Black.
Lenny: Black? That's the worst color there is!
Lenny: No offense there, Carl.
Carl: I get it all the time.

posted by 445supermag at 8:30 PM on November 10, 2009


All the horses on the carousel at Disneyland are white. If you ask why, you'll probably be told it's because all the riders at Disneyland are good guys.

(Or you may be told by someone else it's actually because the carousel originally only had one white horse. It became so popular to the point of exclusion, however, so they had to paint all the other horses white and appease all the kids. It makes for a great apocryphal story, but I've never been able to find any decent corroboration. The "all riders are good guys" line, however, I've heard several times over.)
posted by Spatch at 6:16 AM on November 11, 2009


Atreides, I was thinking of the simple moral outlook, but actually, googling reminds me that sin and the devil are black.

Thanks for the confirmation. I wonder how much the interjection of the Devil and Sin as black are related to other customary associates of black with evil, such as witches always represented dressed in black, the bad luck of black cats, etc. Obviously, there isn't a strict hard line rule with the color overall.

All the horses on the carousel at Disneyland are white. If you ask why, you'll probably be told it's because all the riders at Disneyland are good guys.

It's an old archetype that the hero or someone very honored rides a white horse.
posted by Atreides at 6:32 AM on November 11, 2009


Or they're doing heroin, if 80s new wave taught me anything.
posted by Spatch at 6:56 AM on November 11, 2009


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