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See Inside November / December 2009

The Color of Sin--Why the Good Guys Wear White

Ancient fears of filth and contagion may explain why we think of morality in black and white

WHEN THE CHRYSLER car company released a new model of its Dodge Coronet in 1967, the theme of its advertising campaign was the “White Hat Special.” Some of the ads featured cartoon cowboys riding around “keepin’ the prices low,” whereas others had the ubiquitous “Dodge Girl” in her signature white Stetson, chirping: “Only the good guys could put together a deal like this.”

These ads did not need any elaboration. Madison Avenue knew that potential buyers had all been raised on film and TV Westerns and were familiar with the symbolism of white hats. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger—these cinematic heroes wore white hats, and bad guys wore black. It was all very simple.

Simple, but maybe not all that original. The colors white and black have carried layers of moral meaning since long before Americans’ infatuation with cowboys and automobiles. Indeed, some scientists believe that our conception of blackness and sin may be entangled with a fundamental and ancient fear of dirt and contagion that remains deeply wired in our neurons today.

Mental Mismatch
Two University of Virginia psychologists recently decided to explore this provocative idea in the laboratory. Gary D. Sherman and Gerald L. Clore wanted to know if common metaphors may be more than mere rhetorical devices, if in fact they might be deep embodiments of moral thinking. They decided to test the link between white and virtue (and black and sin) as part of this larger question.

The psychologists adapted a reaction-time test from the 1930s called the Stroop test. You may know it from the Internet, where it circulates as a kind of parlor game. In the test the names of colors are printed in a mismatched color—say, the word “blue” may be yellow in hue—and you must very quickly indicate the color rather than the word’s meaning. The task is hard because our mind wants to read the word, and slow reaction time is taken as a sign of cognitive disconnect or conflict.

In Sherman and Clore’s version of the Stroop, volunteers read not the names of colors but words with strong moral overtones: greed and honesty, for example. Some of the words were printed in black and some in white, and they flashed rapidly on a screen. As with the original Stroop, a fast reaction time was taken as evidence that a connection was mentally automatic and natural; hesitation was taken as a sign that a connection did not ring true. The researchers wanted to see if the volunteers automatically linked immorality with blackness, as in black ink, and virtue with whiteness.

And they did, so quickly that the connections could not possibly be deliberate. When moral words were printed in white and immoral words in black, reaction time was significantly faster than when words of virtue were black and sin were white. Just as we unthinkingly—almost unconsciously—“know” a lemon is yellow, we instantly know that sin and crime are black and that grace and virtue are white.

Dirt and Sin
Why would this intrinsic association exist? One possibility is that the metaphor is more complex, embodying not just right and wrong but purity and contagion, too. Think of the metaphor “new-fallen snow.” It is not only white, it is also virginal and unadulterated, like a wedding dress. And blackness not only discolors it, it stains it, taints its purity. With this in mind, the psychologists ran another experiment, adding this dimension of contagion, of feeling morally “dirty.” They deliberately primed some volunteers’ immoral thoughts by having them read a story about a self-serving, immoral lawyer and then compared them with volunteers primed for ethical thinking.

The idea was that people who were feeling morally dirty would be quicker to make the connection between immorality and blackness on the moral Stroop test, which is exactly what the researchers found. And what’s more, they found the link using much looser definitions of morality and immorality—including words such as dieting, gossip, duty, partying, helping, and so forth. In other words, those primed for misbehavior linked blackness not only with crime and cheating but with being irresponsible, unreliable, self-centered slackers.

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