The Shoe Is the New Dress

Can understanding visual opposition help us understand political opposition? It can’t hurt!

Gray and green or pink and white?

Left: @TFILDOLANS via Twitter. Right: @staruins via Twitter.

This story was originally published on Pascal’s Pensées and has been republished here with permission.

It is happening again. Another “dress”-like image just surfaced. This time it’s a shoe (which is actually pink and white).

As far as I can tell, it’s more or less the same phenomenon. Ill-defined lighting conditions in the images are being filled in by lighting assumptions, and those assumptions differ between people due to a variety of factors, including which light they have seen more of in their lifetimes. The factors affecting the different viewings are similar to the ones I described in my original paper on the dress, which I have previously written about for Slate.


As we get better at constructing these images with ill-defined illumination, I expect more of these photos to pop up periodically. But, given the mind-boggling popularity of the dress, people now seem more comfortable (and less surprised) by the notion that we can see colors of the same image differently.


But of course, they still generate interest because they test our tacit assumption that we all more or less see the same reality as everyone else. If you believe yourself to be right most of the time (which most people presume) and someone else disagrees, then that person has to be wrong, for whatever reason. Color stimuli like this seem to produce categorically and profoundly differing interpretations, in which both people are sure they are right, which is what makes them so unsettling.


I think the same thing basically applies to social and political questions. We take our experiences at face value and fill the rest in with assumptions that are based on prior experience. But because people’s experiences will differ, disagreements abound. This is frankly why I find these stimuli so interesting, and why I study them in my lab. (If you want to help out with my research, take this survey on visual illusions.)

People operate experientially. Here, they experience benign disagreement, which is certainly different than politics, where disagreement is rarely benign. Hopefully, as these photos become more common, people will become more comfortable with the notion that they can fundamentally—but sincerely—disagree, but still coexist.

This kind of thing could be therapeutic. We could use it.