The Dress

– Jeanne M. Slattery and Melissa K. Downes

The Dress

The Dress

Do you remember The Dress?

During the time of The Dress, we were at Michelle’s Cafe, talking with the baristas about the white/gold, black/blue dress phenomenon and how it could be discussed in different classes, in different disciplines. During the course of our discussion we talked about the eye’s physiology (biology, psychology), individual differences in perception (psychology), and the ways that light influences our perception of a stimulus (psychophysics, art). We considered at length the broader implications for our understanding of the world when two people can see the same stimulus under the same conditions and perceive that situation differently (philosophy, psychology, literature, and rhetoric). One woman commented that a friend had initially seen The Dress as white and gold, but later could only see it as blue and black — and repeatedly returned to the photo to check his perception.

This picture posted by Brain Games (National Geographic TV) probably works in much the same way as The Dress. The background cues our perception of each box.

This picture posted by Brain Games (National Geographic TV) probably works in much the same way as The Dress. The background cues our perception of each box.

Our colleagues also talked about The Dress. Mark Mitchell (Psychology) wondered whether we could present The Dress under the same sort of conditions seen in the Asch experiment and whether we would see the same pattern of responses (i.e., conformity with the lying confederates of the experimenter) with this sort of stimulus. If not, why not?

Emily Sprague Parnee (Mathematics) was stuck in her Finite Math class. She interrupted her discussion of how to compute monthly deposits to meet retirement goals in order to reflect on The Dress and “the unfortunate tendency to view all questions, especially those in Finite Math, as having Only One Right Answer, with the honor of being right frequently awarded to the answer that is most popular — except in Finite Math, of course, where truth is still understood to be subject to the dictatorship of  The Teacher.”

We wonder how our friends and colleagues in Communications and other disciplines  talked about The Dress. When The Dress happened, did you talk about it in class? If so, what did you discover? Have you used other things found on social media or in the news? With what results?

In the current cultural and political climate, people can perceive the same data, yet interpret them in different ways. For example, Trump voters were more likely than Clinton voters or nonvoters to see the Trump inauguration as having more people in attendance than the Obama inauguration, despite clear differences (Schaffner & Luks, 2017). Why? Phenomena like The Dress offer us opportunities to engage students in critical thinking about their world.

And we’ve got to engage people in thinking critically. Can we use social media’s frequent obsession with image and perception as an opportunity to build these skills in observation, analysis, and evaluation? There are many opportunities for such conversations.

For example, we both use The Invisible Gorilla in our disparate disciplines – psychology and English – to talk about the ways that perception is selective and screened through our expectations and focus. Students are surprised by what they miss and thoughtfully consider this short video in ways that they probably wouldn’t engage with a lecture about the same content.

What happens when we open our discussions to include things from Facebook, Tumblr, politics, and the news? One possibility is that you’ll find what we found at Michelle’s: a spirited discussion. (On the other hand, one of these thoughtful and engaged baristas also noted that she hadn’t been on Facebook for two days in order to avoid The Dress.)

We want to emphasize the potential found in using phenomena like The Dress – the buzz of what’s happening right now – to  connect with students and help them connect to the ideas and skills they need. We also believe that such events might be a gateway to some of the difficult (often politically-charged) issues that can be challenging to discuss in the classroom.


Brain Games. (n.d.). Watch this! National Geographic TV. Retrieved from

Schaffner, B., & Luks, S. (2017). This is what Trump voters said when asked to compare his inauguration crowd with Obama’s. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at

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