Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


blackandwhite

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.