Colour pervades our physical environment, from the soft colours of dawn to the bright colours of tropical birds. It also affects our emotional environment, as when we “see red”, “have the blues”, “turn crimson” with embarrassment; or when our bank account should be “in the black”. We are told that colour has huge effects on us, but how much are we aware of those effects? What would we need to do to harness the power of colour?

Seeing the light: history vs. science

Most would agree with Google’s definition of colour as “the property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or emits light”. The agreement seems to end there, with artists, psychologists, and natural healers insisting that different colours have profound and predictable effects on our psyche, and some scientists claiming that any effects are purely in the context of culture, language, gender, or other factors. Sidestepping arguments, marketers use colour to subtly but powerfully influence purchase choices on everything from automobiles to our favourite breakfast cereals.

The history

Colour’s long history is as colourful as colour itself. The ancient Egyptians built healing temples containing specially-coloured treatment rooms of deep blue, violet, and pink. Native Americans have used colour to treat chronic illness and injuries sustained during hunts and war. The poet Goethe proclaimed that red “conveys an impression of gravity and dignity” and blue is “a contradiction between excitement and repose”. A contemporary example of using colour’s presumed effect is found at the University of Iowa in the United States, where the visiting team’s locker rooms are painted a soft, feminine pink. The reason? A former Iowa football coach, Hayden Fry, had read that pink has a calming effect on people, lowering their energy levels: just what the home team would hope for in their rivals!

The science

Colour psychology is appealing, yet little research has been done to determine how colour affects us – and results seem mixed. In 2003-2004, OKI sponsored research with subjects from six cultures testing colour harmony theories. The results were astounding, with up to 92 percent agreement between the participants about what constituted “harmonious” colours! The researchers concluded that the response to colour is not as dependent on age, gender, or culture as previously thought.

Colour perception might be determined by language, however. In 2005, longer-term research involving three-year-olds in England and Namibia showed that, as the children aged, their colour vocabularies diverged greatly. The experimenters had wondered whether there would be a universal way of learning to perceive colour (related to our human visual system), or a relative manner, which was dependent on the child’s language/culture. Ultimately, the English children acquired the 11 colour terms that are basic in English (and many other developed cultures), whereas the African children acquired five basic colour terms, consistent with how their language/culture “sees” colour.

I can relate to the second experiment. In Palau, Micronesia, red is “bekerkard”, but pink must be described as “bekekerkard”, or “sort of red”: there’s no word for pink!

Finally, it would seem that colour does impact on aspects of our lives, such as achievement. I had earlier heard of research in which two groups of subjects each participated in a lesson of identical content and length, presented in a blue room for half of the subjects and a red room for the other half. Those in the red room (red being a restless colour) perceived the lesson as much longer than those in the blue room. University of Rochester research in 2007 went further, showing that those subjects exposed to red briefly before a test performed significantly less well on the test than those not exposed to red. Because their study was about “avoidance motivation” (that is, being driven to avoid failure, associated with red marking errors on papers), the researchers concluded that their hypothesis – that colour can evoke motivation, having an effect without the person being aware of it – was supported.

What’s your relationship with colour?

How do you use colour? Do you have a favourite colour? What does that colour mean for you? Surveys have found that 57% of men and 35% of women prefer blue (with purple being women’s second most preferred colour, at 20%). How do you use your go-to colour to make your life better? My casual office survey revealed that most participants named one of these two colours – purple or blue – because, they said, the colour “relaxes me” or “makes me feel happy”. Which colour do you use when you are feeling “down”? Which colour(s) do you wear? Which do you have at home? Many people, for example, love the high-energy feeling of walking into a room with red accents, but wouldn’t want to live in the middle of that wavelength: “too exciting”, they say. Blue is “more calming”. Gray is associated with neutrality, but also depression and lack of energy and confidence.

Ultimately, we may not need to go as far as the psychics and natural healers in declaring precise effects of subtle colour differentiations, but tuning into how we feel when we are surrounded by certain segments of the rainbow may just make our psychological world a bit more, well, colourful.

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.

This article was originally published in Asteron Life’s Balance BlogAIPC regularly contributes to Balance’s wellbeing blog category.