The Dress, the Democracy, the Divide

Exploring our inability to see things from the perspective of another

The Dress

You, of course, remember the Dress, the social phenomenon that was so shocking and memorable, it actually usurped use of a common word. Say “The Dress” to anyone old enough to remember it, and they’ll likely know what you’re talking about. (If you haven’t heard of it, I highly recommend you look at the picture below and discuss what you see with several friends before reading on…)

What two colors do you see?

I showed it to my two young kids, who’d never heard of it and who didn’t believe it was possible for people to see two completely different sets of colors. Sure enough, my daughter saw white and gold while my son saw black and blue.

There are many reasons this viral sensation is no less fascinating today than it was back in 2015. But probably the most incredible thing of all is the certainty with which anyone feels that they’re right and others are wrong. “You see black and blue? That makes no sense. You’re just wrong.”

I was reminded of this divide the other day when reading, of all things, about Joe Biden.

The Democracy

I’m not interested in arguing in favor of any political position here. In fact, as this article shows, even if I were, it would be fruitless. The reason becomes apparent when we look at Biden’s approval rating.

Heading into election season, he’s hovering around 42%, and his disapproval rating is around 53% (according to FiveThirtyEight). Six months ago, it was 43%/52%. One year ago, it was—get this—43%/53%. Eighteen months ago, 41%/53%. Virtually no change. Presumably, hardly any Americans have changed their perspectives on the President during his term in office.

Is Joe Biden the most steadily divisive politician ever? Of course not. After Trump’s term in office, I could have substituted his name into the above paragraph with virtually the same numbers.

These days, we’re inundated with discussions about the political divide and how it’s never been worse (not only in the US but around the world). This is best captured by the math, which simply doesn’t add up: 100% of voters, it seems, are certain their political perspectives are correct; but half of them think one way, and half the other. Therefore, I could have also done another seamless substitution: If I were to take any 2015 conversion about the Dress and replace the colors with the names of today’s presidential candidates, it would sound the same. “You prefer Joe Biden/Donald Trump? That makes no sense. You’re just wrong.”

The Dress and politics are eerily similar

The Divide

Why does this viral internet meme appear to have so much similarity with our core political divisions?

The answer lies in why people see the colors of the Dress differently from one another.

The best explanation I’ve heard for the why comes from the aptly named podcast The Joy of Why by Quanta Magazine and mathematician Steven Strogatz. In an interview with consciousness expert Dr. Anil Seth, Seth explains:

If you take a piece of white paper from outside, indoors, it still looks the same shade of white normally. And this is kind of surprising, because the light that’s coming into your eyes would have totally changed in its balance of wavelengths. But what the brain does is, it compensates for this. And it takes into account the ambient lighting in figuring out what color something should be. And indoor lighting is relatively yellowish normally, and outdoor lighting is relatively bluish, even if it’s a cloudy day. So it’s always actively compensating for the surrounding light. And with this photo of the dress, it just so happened that it was fully ambiguous with respect to what the ambient lighting might be.

(You can read the full transcription of the interview here).

Hearing this, I couldn’t help but draw connections to politics, to the countless debates I’ve heard from commentators on the left and right as we prepare for another presidential election. What’s amazing (and frustrating) about politics isn’t how much people can disagree, but rather how much they can disagree when interpreting the very same facts.

And so, as with the Dress, we’re left to wonder whether this difference in perception stems from something more fundamental. If we were to extend to politics Dr. Seth’s explanation of the brain “compensating for the surrounding light”, it might go something like this: The events and policies we’re disagreeing about are merely being contextualized in different light, and therefore understood to have different pros and cons.

Seeing the World Differently

In the field of social psychology, Moral Foundations Theory proposes a similar argument. In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt talks about this theory, explaining that people assign different values to six “foundations”:

  • Care/Harm

  • Fairness/Cheating

  • Loyalty/Betrayal

  • Authority/Subversion

  • Sanctity/Degradation

  • Liberty/Oppression

Think of these as six different types of ambient light all shining on an object (or a political issue). In the mind of a liberal or a conservative, the lighting (i.e. the amount of value ascribed to each foundation) is obvious and unambiguous. But just as with the Dress (which takes up nearly the full photograph and offers no clues as to what the true lighting is), nobody outside of the mind of any individual person has visibility into the values assigned to their foundations (or their ambient lighting).

This is why in every political argument, every person is absolutely certain they’re right. Each person fully understands their own contextualization of the facts and is completely incapable of understanding someone else’s contextualization. All of our information is “actively compensating for the surrounding light,” as Dr. Seth says. We just can’t agree on what the surrounding light is.

Ancient Greek Wisdom?

I looked up quotes about this topic to close out this article, and I stumbled across one by Plato:

"You can't debate what is best without first agreeing on what is good."

I loved it. How appropriate! There’s only one problem. Plato definitely never wrote this, and I couldn’t find any evidence anyone else ever did either.

Quite fitting that an article about different interpretations of truth would end with a completely fictional quote. Nevertheless, the sentiment is perfect, so I’m going to stick with it.

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