Deconstructing the ‘dress’ meme

The dress that became a viral phenomenon“The Dress” that erupted into a viral phenomenon last month led DAMON CENTOLA to investigate the optical illusion more deeply.

Centola, a resident fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, studies the collective dynamics of social consensus. Last month, he and a colleague had a paper published about how the structure of social networks can determine whether or not populations come to a consensus on issues before them.

That’s what made him the perfect candidate to shed some scientific light on the viral photo and meme that originated Feb. 26. A huge online debate revolved around whether the dress pictured was blue and black, or white and gold. In the first week alone, more than 10 million tweets mentioned the dress.

“Public opinion was polarized between the two options (white and gold vs. black and blue). Moreover, if the dress is blue and black, why did so many people think it was white and gold?” he wrote.

Centola points out that computer scientists, sociologists and even physicists have been trying to understand how vast segments of the Internet seem to spontaneously converge on opinions. Whether the focus is the safety of vaccinations or climate change, popular opinions about certain topics continuously emerge and evolve in unpredictable ways.

Now, Internet technologies have made it possible to experimentally study how hundreds or even thousands of people interacting simultaneously can produce new collective beliefs.

And so, using an Internet experimental design, Centola ran a study on March 3 to see whether a small fraction of participants could indeed mobilize a sweeping change in popular opinion about the color of the famed dress. In this experiment, people were shown a picture of the famous dress and got to choose from six different color options.

“We wanted to know if it would be possible to create a dominant opinion about the dress color – that is, could we get everyone to coordinate on ‘black and blue’?” he said.

The findings revealed that a minority group highly committed to their particular perception could push their view to become the dominant opinion. As a result, by the end of the experiment, a consensus in the population was saying “white and gold.”

Centola summed up the big picture: “As social networks become increasingly connected, it becomes much easier for a small vanguard of committed individuals to have a tremendous influence over this process, shifting the balance of public opinion from one perspective to its opposite.”