On The Origin of Black and White Thinking

Colour AssociationsIn cultural tropes, good guys wear white and live in immaculately illuminated locations. Bad guys wear black or any other darker colour, and live in really dark lairs. When it comes to teeth, a bright white smile is considered attractive. Or else, tooth whitening services as offered by practices such as Fresh Dental wouldn’t exist.

This way of thinking seems to be as mundane as anything. But who knows? Maybe its origins harbour some interesting bits of information.

Origins of Black and White Thinking

Gary Sherman and Gerald Clore, psychologists from University of Virginia, tried to determine the origins of this mentality. To test the link between white and virtuous acts (not to mention sin and black), they used a reaction test called the Stroop Test. It involves the names of colours printed in another hue (i.e. the word “red” is printed in blue) and participants have to identify the colour of the print; not read the word.

Sherman and Clore’s Stroop had volunteers read words with strong moral meanings instead of the names of colours. Some words were printed in black and some were in white, and all were flashed rapidly. The test uses quick reaction times to determine if the association of colours to morality tropes is automatic. ‘Good’ words in white and ‘bad’ words in black elicited faster reactions. Slower reactions were expected when things were reversed, and they did come. What this means is that morality and colour associations are more or less automatic.

Biological Predisposition

This may be connected to mankind’s penchant for seeking light in the darkness. It’s natural for some people to be afraid of the dark because it’s an evolutionary trait. Researchers believe that the innate fear of darkness is from a point in history when humans weren’t the apex predators. Ancient humans are extremely wary when they wander out into the night, for the biggest predators might be hiding in the shadows.

Furthermore, the darkness impairs sight — a critical sense for humans in terms of self-preservation. People never developed a keen sense of smell or hearing as a collective. Without sight, humans feel extremely vulnerable in the dark. The fear stems from the anticipation of unseen dangers, and it seems to have stuck through the ages. It somehow found its way to denote the divide between good and evil. Today, black or dark colours signify filth, and white represents cleanliness and purity.