More than a Meming? The Color of a Dress, an Interactive Tool, and Our Interpretation of Reality

Last Thursday was when I learned of the "what color is the dress" meme. The wave of interest has given way to irritated weariness as the next memes show up. However, this one is peculiar, and it feels like there is much more going on with it and how it reveals how differently and how strongly we can interpret reality.

I read how several people would have it flip back and forth between blue/black and white/gold, while others did not. This lead me to wonder about how to quantify the "degree" of your blue/black-ness or white/gold-ness. I put together a simple tool to try to do that - it is embedded below, and also available at https://learnforeverlearn.com/dresslevel.

Note that the earlier work of Matt Mastracci's "dress simulator" was very useful for initial settings for removing/adding colors (I used the online image editor pixlr for manipulating the images).

Trying to Quantify One's Blue/Black or White/Gold "Dress Level"
You can try it yourself here with this embedded app
(from https://learnforeverlearn.com/dresslevel/)

There are two steps to use the tool:

  1. Specify whether you initially see it as more blue and black or as more white and gold
  2. Adjust with a slider an overlay of the dress until you would say that the dress is gold/white or blue/black (depending on whether you initially see it as more blue/black or white/gold) - this determines the "level" of your blue/black-ness or white/gold-ness. The level is a number between 1 and 100, or "100+" if the dress doesn't appear to change to the other color at all.

When you get your number, I added an option to tweet it immediately as part of a (possibly naive) attempt at a crowd-sourced data gathering, but this hasn't panned out much yet.

There are many technical explanations about why we might see the dress a certain way, but these seem sterile and beside the point: the bigger issue is how different people can interpret it so differently. And argue about it.

Most illusions I am aware of seem to affect people the same way - while there might be ambiguity (like the lady or a vase one), this ambiguity affects everyone in about the same manner.

Not so the dress. This effect seems to hit within some kind of threshold area of perception.

As for myself, I've been running at about a "white/gold 50", although this seems to be moving downwards. My wife is at about white/gold 80, and my son at blue/black 100+. I was wondering if those who saw it as blue/black would ever see it switch because of my inadequate coloring of the image for that case, but I have heard from two people who have blue/black numbers at about 50 with this version of the tool.

My son kept asking me how I could possibly see it as white and gold, and the white/golders like my wife and myself were wondering if we were being punk'd by some sort of strange conspiracy that the internet arranged. And I've read that some of those on the blue/black side sometimes feel the same way. That's how strongly the "reality" of the dress color can seem.

This freak event meme highlights the question of how differently each of us may be perceiving reality on matters far more important than the color of a dress. Psychologists and cognitive scientists may get some new ideas (and more rigorous tools than this one!) for revealing how our interpretations work and how they differ across people.

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