Color Controversy: The Science of Why #TheDress Has Captivated Our Attention

What is #TheDress going viral?

You thought cops chasing llamas was going to be the meme of the week, but then #TheDress came along and shattered the entire Internet.

The meme started with a debate on Tumblr, but the viral scientists at Buzzfeed quickly picked up on it and their story on the color of the dress has racked up 25+ million views in less than 24 hours.

Yes, you read that right. 25 million hits, for a story about the color of a dress.

You may be asking yourself: WHY?! and HOW?! Thanks to the years of research I put into color, virality and attention for my new book Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention, I have some answers to why #TheDress went viral.

But before I can answer that question, I have to first explain another psychological phenomena.

Let’s Talk About Color Constancy

People tend to think of color as an objective affair. Red is red, and everyone can agree that stop signs and blood are red (unless you’re colorblind, of course). But in reality, color is a subjective experience. We perceive a color based on the colors and shades around it. For example, if you put a color in the shade, it will appear brighter because our brains “compensate” for the fact that shade is darker, thus sometimes brightening up a color in it. This is known as color constancy, and it explains why some people are on team #BlackAndBlue and some are on team #WhiteAndGold.


See the image above? Square A looks much darker than Square B, but in reality they are BOTH THE SAME SHADE OF GREY. Yes, your eyes are deceiving you! This is the famous checker shadow illusion. Need proof? Here’s a bar of the same color connecting the two boxes:

Thanks Wikipedia​ for the visuals.

The lighting also affects how colors are perceived. A tint of blue or yellow can throw everything else off. Color is a subjective experience.

Now, on to #TheDress. In normal light, it is black and blue. But in the context of the picture — shade and a tint of blue lighting — it will actually appear lighter (gold and white) to many people. However, everyone is wired just a bit differently and has slightly different experiences when it comes to colors. This is an example of how our frame of reference — our individual views of the world, shaped by our biology and cultural upbringings — can make us perceive the same information in different lights.

Lindsay Maden/Buzzfeed

And this has been today’s Captivology​-inspired lesson in color science, but we aren’t done yet. We need to talk about the virality of this meme.

Why Did #TheDress Go Viral?

Now you know why a simple dress can be perceived to be multiple colors. Now why the heck is #TheDress dominating your news feeds? Why is it a viral sensation?

The debate is ridiculous enough to make us look twice. In chapter 4 of Captivology, I discuss the science of surprise and oddity. Specifically, we pay attention to the things that violate our expectations of how the world is supposed to work. It’s an instinctual reaction designed as as survival mechanism, but it’s the same reason why you’ll turn your head if a parade of clowns suddenly walks into your favorite coffee shop. I call this the Disruption Trigger.

captivology-coverIn the case of #TheDress… well, there just simply isn’t supposed to be so much debate over something as “objective” as the color of a dress. And as the debate gained steamed, the ridiculousness of major news outlets (and me) writing about #TheDress just reinforced the fact that this entire debate violates all of our expectations. And thus we start to pay attention — specifically short attention.

But the Disruption Trigger is not the reason why #TheDress has become the top meme. The Fear of missing out is. People hate missing out, and we don’t want to be seen as being out of the loop. When Hostess went bankrupt, thousands of people flocked to stores to get the “last” Twinkies. When a celebrity dies, everyone floods the Internet with expressions of their sadness and pain.

People want to feel like they belong to a community, and thus they feel hurt or alone if they aren’t invited to a party or miss out on a major news event. #TheDress is now a major meme and news event, and not participating is a form of missing out. This effect is even stronger when there is a side to root for. Unlike the Disruption Trigger, our fear of missing out drives long attention — our long-term interest in a topic or subject.

In the end, the weirdness of this debate, the innate need to belong to a side and our fear of missing out are ultimately driving attention to this meme.

I’m happy to chat further about the science and psychology of color and attention. I encourage you to check out my new book Captivology, follow me on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Shots, or contact me directly:

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