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The Science Behind Cowboys In Black and White Hats

In old Western movies, heroes often wore white hats and villains wore black hats. Why? Wray Herbert wrote in Scientific American about a new study that investigated why people often associate the color white with righteousness and black with wickedness:


In Sherman and Clore’s version of the Stroop, volunteers read not the names of colors but words with strong moral overtones: greed and honesty, for example. Some of the words were printed in black and some in white, and they flashed rapidly on a screen. As with the original Stroop, a fast reaction time was taken as evidence that a connection was mentally automatic and natural; hesitation was taken as a sign that a connection did not ring true. The researchers wanted to see if the volunteers automatically linked immorality with blackness, as in black ink, and virtue with whiteness.

And they did, so quickly that the connections could not possibly be deliberate. When moral words were printed in white and immoral words in black, reaction time was significantly faster than when words of virtue were black and sin were white. Just as we unthinkingly—almost unconsciously—“know” a lemon is yellow, we instantly know that sin and crime are black and that grace and virtue are white.


The researchers conducted further tests and determined that this color-moral association may stem from concepts of physical cleanliness:

This result offers pretty convincing evidence in itself that the connection between black and bad is not just a metaphor we all have learned over the years, but rather it is deeply associated with our ancient fear of filth and contagion. But Sherman and Clore wanted to look at the question yet another way. If the association between sin and blackness really does reflect a concern about dirt and impurity, then this association should be stronger for people who are preoccupied with purity and pollution. Such fastidiousness often manifests as personal cleanliness, and a proxy for personal cleansing might be the desire for cleaning products. The researchers tested this string of psychological connections in a final study, again ending with the Stroop test.


Link | Image: Republic Pictures

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I would imagine the the linking of black hats was culturally learned and developed.
Black is the colour of mourning in the west, so a villain dressed in black summons thoughts of death. In the same way Goths like to. It's "moody"

Of course, elsewhere in the world black means no such thing. Wikipedia tells me that : in the Japanese culture, Black is associated with honor(rather than death)
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I doubt strongly that this has anything to do with race. The instinctive association of white=good, black=bad likely goes back to the era when night was the time when you couldn't see predators coming. Darkness is the unknown, which is always scary.

(Urban dwellers: Try walking around your block when there's a blackout sometime, with no streetlights or anything. It's surprising how quickly those primal instincts kick in, telling you to get to a safe place ASAP.)
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Gladwell wrote about this in Blink , though he attributed it to racial biases. (Half-Jamaican, he was troubled to note that his natural bias was "white=positive, black = negative".)

It's clearly not about cleanliness. In some cultures, accrued, "earned" dirt is a good thing---the reason "black belt" is the top rank is that everyone originally started with a white belt...one who had worked at it hard and long enough eventually turned their belt black with soot/dirt.

And white moves first in chess for absolutely racial reasons.
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I don't buy into the racist angle of this at all. It makes more sense that dark and light connotations stem from dark being unknown and dangerous, because it often was. Also, winters tend to be a darker time of the year, especially in the places where it gets extremely cold, and this was a time of hardship for many, in which food was more scarce.

I agree with Howie's statement. If you even say anything in relation to black or white, it's automatically tied in with race because the extremely politically correct make it that way and look for the offensive where it may not exist.
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