Persuasion: How to Convince People That Black is White
Introduction & Excerpts (Via Priceless Blog)
For generations, Harvard psychology students were treated to a jaw-dropping classroom experiment. With the aplomb of a magician, Professor S.S. “Smitty” Stevens (1906-1973) would darken the room and reveal a white disk. Then Stevens turned a spotlight on the disk. Instantly, it turned black. Unless you’re seen it, the sense of logic turned upside is hard to convey. Perhaps Chico Marx said it best: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
The secret was marvelously simple. The “white” disk was actually gray. Stevens made sure it was the brightest thing in a dark room, and that made it look white. Then Stevens illuminated a ring of (truly) white paper around the gray disk. The white paper was so more reflective that it made the gray look black by contrast.
As Stevens put it in his textbook, Psychophysics, “black is white with a bright ring around it.” The Orwellian tone of that must have been intentional. In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother convinces everyone that war is peace, freedom is slavery, and black is white. Stevens managed the same feat (with lighting rather than a cage of rats). His point was that human perception is sensitive to contrasts, not absolute values. Subjectively, it’s all relative. (This too is a chilling talking point of Big Brother’s minions.)