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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

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