April 02 2015

The Dress: did genetics almost break the internet?

Dr Britta Stordal, Senior Lecturer in the School of Science and TechnologySenior Lecturer in Natural Sciences at Middlesex University Dr Britta Stordal examines which demographic factors could play a part in the colours we see ‘The Dress’.

When I first saw the photo of ‘The Dress’ (#TheDress, if you prefer), like most people I didn’t understand the fuss and figured it was some kind of trick. I see white/gold and nothing else. Then I showed it to my husband and he saw blue/black. At that moment a hypothesis was born: Maybe the way we interpret the colours has something to do with gender?

In the unlikely case you missed it, ‘The Dress’ is a photograph that started circulating on the internet in late February 2015.  Approximately 50 per cent of people see the dress with blue/black colouring and the other 50 per cent see white/gold or other colours.

In real life, the dress itself is blue and black. There is just something about the colour balance and brightness of this particular photo that leads to a different interpretation of colours by different people.

A quick search of the internet revealed that Kim Kardashian also sees white/gold like me, while Kanye West sees blue/black like my husband. Since this pattern of interpretation of colour is probably the only thing we have in common with the Kardashian-Wests I figured that I was on to something.

But four subjects is far from scientific proof; so I designed a survey to test my hypothesis.

The survey

I am a Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University in London, where I teach anatomy and physiology as well as statistics. I piloted the survey on my students and it generated a lot of excitement in class. In my class of 42 students we found no link between gender and seeing white/gold or blue/black.

However, the results from class suggested that there could be an association with age. Scientists are adaptable people; this finding just meant I needed a few more hypotheses and a way of collecting a lot of data. So I designed a new survey, and launched it online though the Middlesex University Facebook and Twitter pages. I asked participants their age, gender, ethnicity and if they were colour-blind.

Initial results

Thanks to the popularity of the white/gold vs blue/black debate on the internet I had 731 responses to the survey in the first week.

56.7 per cent of respondents saw blue/black and 43.2 per cent saw white/gold. So who is more likely to see white/gold?

I found that a person’s gender, age or being colour blind do not predict if they are more likely to see white/gold.

Ethnicity might have an impact but the difference between ethnic groups is very small. 40 per cent of people identifying as white in this survey saw white/gold compared 44 per cent of people identifying as non-white.

I received lots of suggestions from participants on how to improve the survey. There seems to be a few other groups of people who see blue/gold or blue/brown. Some who see the photo differently on different occasions and some who see it differently with and without wearing glasses.

Revised survey

The Dress image that circulated the internet

In case you missed it, here is the image of The Dress

A revised version of the survey is now available online. I now know that I am going to need at least 3,000 participants to prove any association with ethnicity so please let me know if you are a white/gold, blue/black or part of the new categories of blue/gold and blue/brown.

This photograph is going to be an exciting topic of research for years to come. I am sure that there could be a genetic factor in why different people see different colours in the image. The same way that people taste some foods differently, some people like coriander and some people say it tastes like soap.

I’ll leave those studies to the neuroscientists, but this study has given them a head start. Knowing what is not associated with something is an important step in finding out what is.

If you would like to contribute to this project by completing the survey please click here.

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