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

Makes some sense but instead of it being a sanitary issue what about darkness vs light? I mean religions have associated darkness with evil and light with goodness, and it all relates to the ability to see things.

Darkness is unknown and scary. Especially back before electric lights were everywhere, not being able to see anything at night, not even a few feet in front of you... It's scary! Bad emotions.

Whereas light lets you see things, it helps you have control over your surroundings and know where you're about to step, it's comforting. Good emotions.
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Be aware of the embedded white supremacy overtones of the "research findings." People respond to white=virtue because that is how racism has played out in our country for the past 500 years. To reverse the colors is contrary to our dominant U.S culture, which continues to draw on racist metaphors.

It is classic conditioning based on Western culture to associate white with purity and black with impurity. Non-western or indigenous cultures do not necessarily have the same tendencies.

To extrapolate the contemporary results to an ancient preoccupation with dirt is ridiculous. Humans only began bathing daily in the last 100 years. Ancient humans had a completely different understanding of the world, and would certainly have different cultural color associations.
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Clearly this study needs to be done in cultures without a history of racial oppression based on the colour or one's skin. The more isolated from the rest of the world the better. This would be able to eliminate the "racial oppression" explanation. It would be helpful to know what country this study was conducted in. The Scientific American publishes studies from all over the world.

And I agree with the light-dark theory. But that's not to say that the dirty-clean explanation doesn't play a part.

The Stroop test is not just a test of deeply embedded beliefs from our evolutionary past, but also the embedded beliefs we have developed within the course of our own lives. And so even though we only have begun bathing daily within the last 100 years, it's likely the participants (my guess would be 18 year old undergraduate students) have been bathing regularly all their lives.

Also, they found a stronger link between these positive associations with white in people who rated higher on cleanliness, so this theory is based on the data.
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Agreed on the white/black day/night.

Interestingly, most of the Western biblical use of the white/day black/night themes in stories are used to malign occult, "black magic", approaches, and favor more devotional religious spirituality (if you read between the lines in parables like the one where Noah gets drunk, for example).

The racial connotations of black/white were applied after the fact by racists, usually in America during slavery (for example, in Mormonism). And it's an ill-fitting mashup to say the least...
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Re: racism. Remember that correlation does not mean causation. Besides, without further testing, you can't presume that racism leads to one's tendency to see black and white as evil and good. It could very well be the opposite; one's innate connection between dark/light and evil/good may very well be the root cause of racial tendencies.
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Don't overthink the issue. It's as simple as day and night. People are most vulnerable in the dark, while they sleep. Anyone bringing race into the argument ignores the fact that this dichotomy existed long before the races intermixed.
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Had to look at these comments to see how fast the cudgel of racism would be swung. Just say the words 'black' or 'white' in America today and SOMEONE will say its blatently racist or has racist undertones.
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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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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 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 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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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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