The Science Behind Why We Care About ‘The Dress’

You know, the dress. The one everyone’s been talking about — the one that may seem gold and white to some or blue and black to others, and the internet has gone absolutely crazy with viral pictures of the dress and discussions about what color it is. Theories have been proposed that the dress, which is said by the owner to be black and blue, is seen according to what kind of mood we are in, or how our retina refracts light, or what we think we want to see sub-consciously.

It’s all so strange, and with so much more pressing issues in the world, why are people so entranced by this dress, which many don’t even find attractive no matter what color it is?

The fact is the vast majority of people would rather discuss the color of a dress, a funny, innocuous debate, than deal with hard truths like beheadings by ISIS or what Obama is doing about the Ukraine. We don’t feel we have much input about the latter because we’re not the experts. We are the experts, however, on what we see ourselves — thus the reason we love to talk about the dress and what it potentially means about us. This isn’t opinion — this is factual, professional opinion. What the majority of us read, share, think about, and discuss is not “hard news”-oriented at all.

A new study, led by applied mathematicians at the University of Vermont and Mitre Corp., researched the emotional content of the news we share online on social media through a retrospective study. The researchers found that no matter the source of the news or the language the news is shared in, we use positive “feel good” words more and share positive stories over the negative news by a very vast majority.

However, it’s important to realize that if you’re not particularly interested in the science behind the dress, just the social oddity of the whole thing, you are not strange or uninterested in things that are intellectual. It does mean that sharing this dress affects part of our limbic system — the “feel good” part of our brain — and connecting with other people about the fairly shallow, safe topic makes us feel happy. Even more entertaining than looking at the dress and seeing what way our eyes view the picture of it is the feeling of connectedness we have with others when we look at and debate over the dress. It’s a “safe topic,” even if it’s a baffling one.

By the way, if you found the white and gold dress (that does not exist, except in your mind) to be more attractive than the blue and black one, never fear. The CEO of the company that manufactures the dress, now being marketed as #TheDress, has said that they are considering making a truly authentic white and gold version. Whether or not people will see it for what it is, however, remains to be seen.