Will ‘that dress’ makes us better people?

From my opinion column written for the Egremont 2Day newspaper.

If you’ve not seen the Dress Illusion which went viral on the internet recently then I have to wonder where you’ve been hiding. The illusion – where some people see a white and gold dress while others very definitely see only blue and black – has taken the world by storm and I have to admit the effect is quite startling.

It reminded me of the ‘Magic Eye’ pictures which were all the rage in the 90s. I was quite certain that this was simply a case of ‘the king’s new clothes’ and that my friends were going along with a big con when they claimed that the Statue of Liberty or the space shuttle would come out of the fuzz if you looked at it in the right way. ‘Yeah right.’ I scoffed.

I remained unconvinced until one day – Pow! Out leapt a 3-D space shuttle before my very eyes. I was stunned and couldn’t believe I’d not seen it before!

The dress seems to have a similar ‘you’re-pulling-my-leg’ effect. It was (and remains so in my mind) very clearly a white and gold dress. There is no question of this. My wife, looking at the same image on the same computer, thought that I was messing around and trying to trick her – the dress was, in her mind, without doubt black and blue. One friend told me “we had to ban talking about the dress in our family because the argument was getting too heated.”

Fascinating though this illusion is, I’m not going to attempt to explain why it works because I honestly don’t know. However, I will tell you about research William Hart and colleagues are doing at the University of Alabama which suggests that looking at optical illusions like the dress makes us better, more fair-minded people. Sounds unbelievable doesn’t it?

Hart found that people who were told about ‘naïve realism’ (or how we believe the world is as we perceive it when the truth is very different) and then shown a number of optical illusions were less certain about judging the personality of others and more open to differing views than people who weren’t shown optical illusions. The upshot being that optical illusions help us realise the world is not as we see it and so we’re less prone to be judgemental of others.

This seems to me to be a good thing living, as we do, in a ‘blame culture’ where we’re ready to accuse others of wrongdoing perhaps to shift the blame away from ourselves. In our global village we see or interact with all cultures and societies yet make judgements based on what we’re told rather than finding out the truth for ourselves. No wonder the world seems to be such a mess.

Interestingly, The Salvation Army in South Africa cleverly used the ‘dress’ in their own advert about how we make assumptions and miss what’s important. Take a careful look; it makes you think.


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