I’ve been thinking a lot about color as springtime daffodils, tulips, and cherry trees all vie for my attention. Color is a ubiquitous feature of our environment, yet relatively little is known about how color influences our feelings and actions.
The fact that we even see in color is somewhat miraculous. Cells in the retina (called cones or cone cells) contain various photopigments that respond to different wavelengths of light. (Primates are trichromats, meaning we have three different types of light-sensitive compounds.) Biologists named the three types of cones L, M, and S — corresponding to their sensitivity to Long, Medium and Short wavelengths.
The interaction of these three pigments — the signals each gives off based on a particular wavelength of light — are then interpreted in the brain (the visual cortex) not unlike the way a computer’s operating system interprets the binary code of the microprocessor or “chip.”
Our responses to color are rooted in both biology and sociology. Some color associations are learned: pastels for girls, darks for boys, for example. Others are highly biological, such as the color changes associated with fertility in certain primate species.
These color-meaning patterns influence our thinking and behavior in coordinated ways. For example, women flush redder when they are entering the fertile period of their ovulatory cycles, and red is a color associated with lust and romance in many cultures.
Colors associations are also contextual: a flushed, come-hither gaze evokes a much different response from observers than the same flushed face that is baring its teeth or contorted in rage.
Psychologists have dreamed up all sorts of experiments to test these theories, many derived from observations of the natural world and other primate species. Some of the most interesting to me:
- Women hitchhikers who wear red elicit more rides from male (but not female) drivers.
- Women who wear red are (mistakenly) attributed to have more sexual interest by men, but not by women.
- Students who viewed red before IQ testing scored worse than those who viewed blue or green.
- Participants in an imagined combat attributed greater dominance and aggression to opponents wearing red. (And thought of themselves as more dominant and aggressive when they were wearing red).
- Higher-status male apes display red more intensely than lower-status apes.
- Women view men who wear red as higher status, more attractive and sexually desirable.
Why would simply viewing red produce lower IQ scores? Researchers hypothesize that it’s all part of our association between red and danger or threat. The resulting response is avoidance and appeasement — and self-defeating performance.
So the next time you are rummaging around the closet looking for something to wear, think about how color might help (or hinder) your goals for the day.