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How “The Dress” Exposes the Psychology of Conflict

Mark Thursday, February 26 2015 in your calendar – it will forever be remembered as the weirdest moment in internet history. In case you missed it, the internet basically exploded in debate over “the dress”.

What’s there to debate?

When you look at this dress, do you see a white and gold dress, or a black and blue dress?

Well, internet split down the middle, and “the dress” became the focus of debate and analysis in every household with an internet connection. Scientists have explained why we see it differently, but the psychology of why it was even an argument hasn’t been covered.

 

How “The Dress” Exposes Our Psychological Shortcomings

 

A friend of mine first showed me the picture, and I thought he was fucking with me. It’s clearly, CLEARLY white, with stripes of gold. So I showed my wife.

She looks at it and scrunches her nose a bit, trying to figure out what I’m up to.

“It’s blue and green.”

What!??!?!

I was immediately sucked in. How could she possibly see anything other than white and gold? It’s not like this is a matter of opinion, I mean… it’s obvious, right?

This is where things get really interesting.

There are two types of disagreements: objective and subjective. Objective is fact based, like the distance between two places. Subjective is opinion based, like whether a dress is white and gold or black and blue.

Problems start happening when people mistake subjective disagreements for objective ones, which is basically all the time. But why does it happen?

If you’ve never left your own culture, you have culture blindness. You don’t know how your culture influences your world because you’ve never been anywhere else. This is why world travel is so good for growth – it exposes how much of your worldview is blind acceptance of cultural beliefs and traditions.

Since you can’t travel away from your body, you have psychological blindness. It becomes impossible to see how your perception changes the way you see things, so your brain just says fuck it and assumes everything you believe is legit.

A great example of this is language. We all use the same words, but they carry a slightly different meaning to each of us. If you ask one hundred people to define “near by” in terms of distance, you’ll get one hundred different answers.

 

The 2 Reasons Why “The Dress” Became An Internet Sensation

 

The dress was such a hit because it exposed a short circuit in your brain. Two things came together to make this happen:

1) The subtle differences in the way we define words, or in this case, colours.

2) The mental blindness I mentioned earlier.

One and two together creates a seemingly impossible scenario. If you define colours the way other people do, and you see the world accurately, how can there be a disagreement?? Your brain scrambles to try and reconcile the apparent paradox.

Essentially, “the dress” was a form of mental travel. Like stepping out of your house for the first time and realizing how much your windows distort the view. It stripped away the illusion of objectivity, and gave the whole internet a brief glimpse at how plugged in we are to our own personal Matrix.

It’s interesting to note the lack of disagreement when you break down the dress into individual colours. Suddenly, the disagreement vanishes:

When you break it down…

With the colours isolated from the picture, it becomes easy to look at each colour and ask “What colour is this to you?”

I might call one of those coloured squares gold, while you might call it green-gold or brown. Everyone I know who saw this picture only disagreed slightly on how they’d label the colours, but no where near a difference worth arguing about.

It’s when everything is mixed together that perceived differences arise. The ability to spot these similarities in seemingly opposing perspectives is called integrative complexity and it’s hands down the most important skill for resolving conflicts.

I know to some (most) people this is just a weird viral thing, but to me it’s an opportunity to show people why conflict is so insane. The dress is a stunning metaphor for conflict in general.

Whether it’s a disagreement between friends, husband and wife, or world leaders, we’re all looking at the same dress and arguing about the colours.

By February 24, 2015 July 15th, 2021 Blog, Psychology & Relationships