Menus Subscribe Search

When Black and White Aren’t Black and White

• October 18, 2009 • 5:00 AM

Two psychologists show that our concepts of morality and sin are mentally associated with lightness and darkness, with potentially troubling implications for criminal justice.

Quick! What color is sinfulness? What about moral purity?

If you’re like most people, you naturally see sinfulness as tinged in black, while moral purity comes through in soft whites. And if you are the kind of person who really values cleaning products, or, for some reason, you were just thinking about immorality, the mental coloration of these abstract concepts is even stronger. So demonstrates doctoral student Gary D. Sherman and professor Gerald L. Clore, both of the University of Virginia Psychology Department, in a recent article from Psychological Science.

But why? Is this just a product of conditioning? Or is this something deep-seated within human psychology? And if so, why should purity and sinfulness be tinted in black and white, as opposed to, say, green and orange or any color at all? And moreover, if it is deep-seated, is there anything we could or should do about it, especially in places like courtrooms where immorality is on everyone’s mind and might impair the ability of jurors to be impartial?

To understand why abstract concepts like these might be associated with colors at all requires an understanding of how the mind processes abstract concepts. Almost 30 years ago, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson developed the idea of “grounded metaphors,” which suggests that since our mind can only experience the world through sensory information, abstract concepts can only be understood using metaphors based on sensory experiences. So, for example, status is represented as being up or being down, and it’s always better to be on top.

“The only way we can think abstractly is by having something concrete to liken it to,” explained Clore.

In 2004, he co-authored an article with North Dakota State psychology professors Brain P. Meier and Michael D. Robinson that examined the extent to which goodness and lightness and evil and darkness were linked in people’s brains, building on this idea of grounded metaphors.

“You can think of primordial associations with lightness being safety and darkness being danger,” said Clore. “And you can see this if you look at all world religions.”

They found that college undergraduates were quicker and better at identifying words as positive or negative when the positive words were in white and the negative words were in black (as opposed to the other way around), indicating that there was indeed some deep connection. (The premise of such a test, called a Stroop effect test, is that if words are naturally associated with one color, the brain will have a more difficult time processing them when they are in another color.)

But when asked to identify the word’s font color as black or white instead of its positive-negative dimension, participants had no trouble. This part was a bit surprising, and suggested a bit of a puzzle. It seemed that the color made it harder to identify the words, but the words didn’t make it any more difficult to identify the color. Why?

A few years later, Clore and Sherman had an idea. Clore had previously thought that there are actually three separate ways the mind evaluates things as good or bad. One is how it affects personal goals. (For example: It’s good to be healthy, but bad to be sick.) A second is based on taste (Fudge ice cream is good; Pistachio ice cream is bad). A third is whether it is right or wrong, moral or immoral.

But moral and immoral are abstract concepts, and so the mind needs a grounded metaphor. And it seems the metaphor we use is pure versus impure. “It’s this notion of pollution and contamination, white and black, and you can’t let anything near the white, because one drop of black paint in the white paint and you get it gray,” said Clore.

Sherman added: “In the physical world the idea of keeping aware of a source of disease or contagion is important, and we understand that impurities are dark and that light surfaces can help detect impurities.”

So Clore and Sherman went back and re-analyzed the 2004 data to test what would happen if instead of looking at color identification speed for all positive and negative words, they just looked at words relating to morality or immorality. They found if they limited their analysis to that particular subset, there was indeed a statistically significant effect.

Next, the researchers wanted to see if they could strengthen the effect by priming participants 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.”

Sherman and Clore also conducted a third study, 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. (Elsewhere, researchers have shown that physical cleanliness is psychologically linked to concerns for moral purity, something that has been called the “Macbeth effect,” referring to Lady Macbeth’s obsessive hand washing). This further confirmed the mental association of white and black with moral purity/impurity.

In publishing their findings, the authors were sensitive about its implications for explaining or even justifying racism against darker-skinned people. They worried that it could be misinterpreted as showing that black equals immorality.

“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.”

Sherman also added that historically, race has often been determined by the one-drop rule, and “one drop of blood has been related to the impurity-contamination idea.”

Still, there are potentially important implications for race. Since the research shows that the mental association of light/pure and dark/sin is likely to be strongest when ideas of immorality are on the mind, this could impair the impartiality of jurors in criminal cases.

“In a context where the morality and impurity metaphor is alive, such as in the courtroom, that reinforces the association,” said Clore. “Surely it is no simple accident that it is harder for a black man to get off than a white man to get off, and the punishment is harsher for black defendants than for white defendants. I think it’s a combination of salience, what’s accessible, and the moral frame.”

Though there are ways to counter this effect by calling attention to it (as one of the studies demonstrated), Clore said that one effect of pointing out people’s sources of bias is that it “makes people bend over backwards the other way … you’re just as likely to make them try hard to overcompensate. Things can be malleable in the domain of emotions.” In other words, a mind free of subtle bias in one direction or another is very hard to obtain.

Clore said he would be exploring this awareness effect more in the future, and both researchers said they would be expanding the tests to explore whether the effects were the same across different races (most participants in the first round of studies were white college students), as well as across different cultures, countries and religions, to see whether the results would remain as black and white as they first appeared.

Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

More From Lee Drutman

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

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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