The Stroop Effect

There are two styles of fighting. The direct approach is to counter strength with strength, as we see in boxing. The alternative is indirect and subtle: use your opponent's strength against them. Many asian styles of fighting are based on this second approach. Instead of countering a blow, students are taught to amplify and redirect it, throwing their opponents off balance. In this way, a large person who charges a small one may find themselves thrown painfully to the floor.

Psychologists have learned to use the same strategy in their efforts to understand human thinking. The Stroop effect is perhaps the finest demonstration of this approach: turning a powerful and useful mental skill into a great weakness. In particular, our skill at reading words will make it hard to perform an otherwise trivial task: identifying the colors of objects.

Reading is the most important skill needed in modern society. Reading greatly amplifies our opportunities to learn because we can share knowledge widely and cheaply. Knowledge is power, and reading is a superb means to knowledge.

It is not easy to learn how to read. Children take several years to master this strange act where scribbled marks on a page are interpreted as language. But almost everyone who has read their way to this point has been practicing reading for many years. Skills that are highly practiced become automatic and can be carried out with little or no mental effort. As adults, we have practiced reading for so long that it is hard NOT to read a word that we look at. This is the psychological strength that the Stroop effect turns into a weakness.