I know, you’re all over the dress. You’ve moved on to (checks Twitter) “#HouseOfCards”, Boris Nemtsov and the new Samsung gadgets. I wanted to touch on some of the things I mentioned in yesterday’s post and why that dress picture was so useful.
The first reason is that issues of conflict caused by different perception are not new. You only have to look at the furore surrounding the introduction of Impressionism, the scandal of the colour palette of the Fauvists, the outrage over Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Dada in general, to see that art is an area that is constantly generating debate and argument over what is, and what is not, art. One of the biggest changes has been the move away from representative art to abstract art, mainly because we are no longer capable of making the simple objective comparison of “that painting looks like the thing that it’s a painting of.” (Let’s not even start on the ongoing linguistic violence over ending sentences with prepositions.)
Once we move art into the abstract, suddenly we are asking a question beyond “does it look like something?” and move into the realm of “does it remind us of something?”, “does it make us feel something?” and “does it make us think about the original object in a different way?” You don’t have to go all the way to using body fluids and live otters in performance pieces to start running into the refrains so often heard in art galleries: “I don’t get it”, “I could have done that”, “It’s all a con”, “It doesn’t look like anything” and “I don’t like it.”
This was a radical departure from art of the time, part of the Suprematism movement that flourished briefly before Stalin suppressed it, heavily and brutally. Art like this was considered subversive, dangerous and a real threat to the morality of the citizenry. Not bad for two simple shapes, is it? And, yet, many people will look at this and use of the above phrases. There is an enormous range of perception on this very simple (yet deeply complicated) piece of art.
The viewer is, of course, completely entitled to their subjective opinion on art but this is, for many cases, a perceptual issue caused by a lack of familiarity with the intentions, practices and goals of abstract art. When we were still painting pictures of houses and rich people, there were many pictures from the 16th to 18th century which contain really badly painted animals. It’s worth going to an historical art museum just to look at all the crap animals. Looking at early European artists trying to capture Australian fauna gives you the same experience – people weren’t painting what they were seeing, they were painting a reasonable approximation of the representation and putting that into the picture. Yet this was accepted and it was accepted because it was a commonly held perception. This also explains offensive (and totally unrealistic) caricatures along racial, gender or religious lines: you accept the stereotype as a reasonable portrayal because of shared perception. (And, no, I’m not putting pictures of that up.)
But, when we talk about art or food, it’s easy to get caught up in things like cultural capital, the assets we have that aren’t money but allow us to be more socially mobile. “Knowing” about art, wine or food has real weight in certain social situations, so the background here matters. Thus, to illustrate that two people can look at the same abstract piece and have one be enraptured while the other wants their money back is not a clean perceptual distinction, free of outside influence. We can’t say “human perception is very a personal business” based on this alone because there are too many arguments to be made about prior knowledge, art appreciation, socioeconomic factors and cultural capital.
But let’s look at another argument starter, the dreaded Monty Hall Problem, where there are three doors, a good prize behind one, and you have to pick a door to try and win a prize. If the host opens a door showing you where the prize isn’t, do you switch or not? (The correctly formulated problem is designed so that switching is the right thing to do but, again, so much argument.) This is, again, a perceptual issue because of how people think about probability and how much weight they invest in their decision making process, how they feel when discussing it and so on. I’ve seen people get into serious arguments about this and this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the incredible abuse Marilyn vos Savant suffered when she had the audacity to post the correct solution to the problem.
This is another great example of what happens when the human perceptual system, environmental factors and facts get jammed together but… it’s also not clean because you can start talking about previous mathematical experience, logical thinking approaches, textual analysis and so on. It’s easy to say that “ah, this isn’t just a human perceptual thing, it’s everything else.”
This is why I love that stupid dress picture. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge of art, cultural capital, mathematical background, history of game shows or whatever. All you need are eyes and relatively functional colour sense of colour. (The dress doesn’t even hit most of the colour blindness issues, interestingly.)
The dress is the clearest example we have that two people can look at the same thing and it’s perception issues that are inbuilt and beyond their control that cause them to have a difference of opinion. We finally have a universal example of how being human is not being sure of the world that we live in and one that we can reproduce anytime we want, without having to carry out any more preparation than “have you seen this dress?”
What we do with it is, as always, the important question now. For me, it’s a reminder to think about issues of perception before I explode with rage across the Internet. Some things will still just be dumb, cruel or evil – the dress won’t heal the world but it does give us a new filter to apply. But it’s simple and clean, and that’s why I think the dress is one of the best things to happen recently to help to bring us together in our discussions so that we can sort out important things and get them done.
For those who missed it, the Internet recently went crazy over llamas and a dress. (If this is the only thing that survives our civilisation, boy, is that sentence going to confuse future anthropologists.) Llamas are cool (there ain’t no karma drama with a llama) so I’m going to talk about the dress. This dress (with handy RGB codes thrown in, from a Wired article I’m about to link to):
When I first saw it, and I saw it early on, the poster was asking what colour it was because she’d taken a picture in the store of a blue and black dress and, yet, in the picture she took, it sometimes looked white and gold and it sometimes looked blue and black. The dress itself is not what I’m discussing here today.
Let’s get something out of the way. Here’s the Wired article to explain why two different humans can see this dress as two different colours and be right. Okay? The fact is that the dress that the picture is of is a blue and black dress (which is currently selling like hot cakes, by the way) but the picture itself is, accidentally, a picture that can be interpreted in different ways because of how our visual perception system works.
This isn’t a hoax. There aren’t two images (or more). This isn’t some elaborate Alternative Reality Game prank.
But the reaction to the dress itself was staggering. In between other things, I plunged into a variety of different social fora to observe the reaction. (Other people also noticed this and have written great articles, including this one in The Atlantic. Thanks for the link, Marc!) The reactions included:
- Genuine bewilderment on the part of people who had already seen both on the same device at nearly adjacent times and were wondering if they were going mad.
- Fierce tribalism from the “white and gold” and “black and blue” camps, within families, across social groups as people were convinced that the other people were wrong.
- People who were sure that it was some sort of elaborate hoax with two images. (No doubt, Big Dress was trying to cover something up.)
- Bordering-on-smug explanations from people who believed that seeing it a certain way indicated that they had superior “something or other”, where you can put day vision/night vision/visual acuity/colour sense/dressmaking skill/pixel awareness/photoshop knowledge.
- People who thought it was interesting and wondered what was happening.
- Attention policing from people who wanted all of social media to stop talking about the dress because we should be talking about (insert one or more) llamas, Leonard Nimoy (RIP, LLAP, \\//) or the disturbingly short lifespan of Russian politicians.
The issue to take away, and the reason I’ve put this on my education blog, is that we have just had an incredibly important lesson in human behavioural patterns. The (angry) team formation. The presumption that someone is trying to make us feel stupid, playing a prank on us. The inability to recognise that the human perceptual system is, before we put any actual cognitive biases in place, incredibly and profoundly affected by the processing shortcuts our perpetual systems take to give us a view of the world.
I want to add a new question to all of our on-line discussion: is this a dress thing?
There are matters that are not the province of simple perceptual confusion. Human rights, equality, murder, are only three things that do not fall into the realm of “I don’t quite see what you see”. Some things become true if we hold the belief – if you believe that students from background X won’t do well then, weirdly enough, then they don’t do well. But there are areas in education when people can see the same things but interpret them in different ways because of contextual differences. Education researchers are well aware that a great deal of what we see and remember about school is often not how we learned but how we were taught. Someone who claims that traditional one-to-many lecturing, as the only approach, worked for them, when prodded, will often talk about the hours spent in the library or with study groups to develop their understanding.
When you work in education research, you get used to people effectively calling you a liar to your face because a great deal of our research says that what we have been doing is actually not a very good way to proceed. But when we talk about improving things, we are not saying that current practitioners suck, we are saying that we believe that we have evidence and practice to help everyone to get better in creating and being part of learning environments. However, many people feel threatened by the promise of better, because it means that they have to accept that their current practice is, therefore, capable of improvement and this is not a great climate in which to think, even to yourself, “maybe I should have been doing better”. Fear. Frustration. Concern over the future. Worry about being in a job. Constant threats to education. It’s no wonder that the two sides who could be helping each other, educational researchers and educational practitioners, can look at the same situation and take away both a promise of a better future and a threat to their livelihood. This is, most profoundly, a dress thing in the majority of cases. In this case, the perceptual system of the researchers has been influenced by research on effective practice, collaboration, cognitive biases and the operation of memory and cognitive systems. Experiment after experiment, with mountains of very cautious, patient and serious analysis to see what can and can’t be learnt from what has been done. This shows the world in a different colour palette and I will go out on a limb and say that there are additional colours in their palette, not just different shades of existing elements. The perceptual system of other people is shaped by their environment and how they have perceived their workplace, students, student behaviour and the personalisation and cognitive aspects that go with this. But the human mind takes shortcuts. Makes assumptions. Has biasses. Fills in gaps to match the existing model and ignores other data. We know about this because research has been done on all of this, too.
You look at the same thing and the way your mind works shapes how you perceive it. Someone else sees it differently, You can’t understand each other. It’s worth asking, before we deploy crushing retorts in electronic media, “is this a dress thing?”
The problem we have is exactly as we saw from the dress: how we address the situation where both sides are convinced that they are right and, from a perceptual and contextual standpoint, they are. We are now in the “post Dress” phase where people are saying things like “Oh God, that dress thing. I never got the big deal” whether they got it or not (because the fad is over and disowning an old fad is as faddish as a fad) and, more reflectively, “Why did people get so angry about this?”
At no point was arguing about the dress colour going to change what people saw until a certain element in their perceptual system changed what it was doing and then, often to their surprise and horror, they saw the other dress! (It’s a bit H.P. Lovecraft, really.) So we then had to work out how we could see the same thing and both be right, then talk about what the colour of the dress that was represented by that image was. I guarantee that there are people out in the world still who are convinced that there is a secret white and gold dress out there and that they were shown a picture of that. Once you accept the existence of these people, you start to realise why so many Internet arguments end up descending into the ALL CAPS EXCHANGE OF BALLISTIC SENTENCES as not accepting that what we personally perceive as being the truth could not be universally perceived is one of the biggest causes of argument. And we’ve all done it. Me, included. But I try to stop myself before I do it too often, or at all.
We have just had a small and bloodless war across the Internet. Two teams have seized the same flag and had a fierce conflict based on the fact that the other team just doesn’t get how wrong they are. We don’t want people to be bewildered about which way to go. We don’t want to stay at loggerheads and avoid discussion. We don’t want to baffle people into thinking that they’re being fooled or be condescending.
What we want is for people to recognise when they might be looking at what is, mostly, a perceptual problem and then go “Oh” and see if they can reestablish context. It won’t always work. Some people choose to argue in bad faith. Some people just have a bee in their bonnet about some things.
“Is this a dress thing?”
In amongst the llamas and the Vulcans and the assassination of Russian politicians, something that was probably almost as important happened. We all learned that we can be both wrong and right in our perception but it is the way that we handle the situation that truly determines whether we’re handling the situation in the wrong or right way. I’ve decided to take a two week break from Facebook to let all of the latent anger that this stirred up die down, because I think we’re going to see this venting for some time.
Maybe you disagree with what I’ve written. That’s fine but, first, ask yourself “Is this a dress thing?”
Live long and prosper.