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.
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