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Black-and-White Pattern Inspires Black-and-White Thinking

• December 17, 2012 • 6:00 AM

Researchers report people asked to judge moral issues offer more extreme opinions if the questions are presented using a black-and-white checkered frame.

When faced with an ethical issue, do you tend to come down strongly in one direction or the other? Or do you opt for a more nuanced response?

Newly published research suggests the answer may depend, in part, on whether you have been exposed to a metaphorically resonant visual cue. Specifically, it finds greater polarization of opinion among people who have peripherally gazed at a black-and-white pattern.

University of Cambridge psychologists Theodora Zarkadi and Simone Schnall describe two related experiments in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. In the first, 111 visitors to a psychology website were presented with a classic moral dilemma: The story of a man whose wife is dying from cancer who steals a life-saving drug from a pharmacist.

The story was presented on a computer screen, tucked inside one of three frames: one solid gray, another sporting a black-and-white checkerboard pattern, or a third that featured a blue-and-yellow checkerboard pattern. After reading it, participants indicated whether they approved or disapproved of his illegal action on a one-to-seven scale.

Those exposed to the black and white pattern “gave ratings that were significantly further from the scale’s midpoint” than the others, the researchers report.

That the ratings of those who saw the gray frame and the blue and yellow frame were virtually identical indicates it wasn’t a generic contrast in colors that made the difference. Rather, the image of black against white appears to wield unique metaphorical power.

In a second experiment, 130 people recruited online were asked to judge the morality of six social issues, including pornography, drug use, and smoking. The questions were presented with either a gray or black-and-white checkered frame.

Once again, judgments deviated farther from the midpoint among those exposed to the black-and-white pattern. It appears that seeing the black/white contrast unconsciously triggered the notion that one should render a firm opinion one way or the other, rather than land on some gray area.

Previous research has found that specific visual cues can influence people’s views on social issues. One experiment found that a hand sanitizer, symbolizing contamination and cleanliness, prompts support for conservative stances on social issues.

The researchers note that their findings could have similar practical implications. They muse that a black-and-white tile pattern on a courtroom floor could influence the thinking of jurors.

So if you expect to deal with any moral dilemmas today, or may need to compromise with someone with a different set of values, here’s a tip: Stay away from crossword puzzles. They just may put you in the wrong frame of mind.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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