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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF COLOR AND ITS EFFECTS ON HOME AND WORK ENVIRONMENTS
by Tracey Church 3/2002
The effect that color has on human emotions can be found to vary according to age, experiences and associations. To provide an acceptable recommendation for positive colors to be used in work and home environments, researchers have studied the biological perception of color, the relationships between color and emotion and the different colors which can be used to increase productivity and performance levels. In addition, therapists have used color incorporated with other factors in the diagnosis and treatment of patients, children and people with behavioural problems.
The Study of Color
Color has been studied from philosophical, biological, anthropological and psychological perspectives over the course of time and although many researchers believe that the perception of color is biologically based, how the perceptions of these colors affects our emotions and reactions may be based on cultural, psychological and age influences. Color sensitivity has been established to occur differently in different species and is dependent on four properties fundamental to the discrimination of color: wavelength discrimination, metamerism in color mixture, sensitivity to color and contrast, and a response consistency between the recognition of colors (Saunders 1998).
The sensitivity to color is defined by a species’ “color space” which for humans in based on three dimension and is therefore “trichromatic” while other animals may be dichromats, tetrachromats, or pentachromats. These differences in color ranges make cross species research difficult but within species research possible. In addition, it has been studied that the perception of color within a species, humans for example, is also highly influenced by the environment into which the color has been presented. Colors presented to human subjects within a lab environment often have quite different effects than colors presented in the natural world (Saunders 1998).
To overcome the variance in environment effects upon the perception of color, researchers introduce various factors into the laboratory setting to try and account for the sensation of color. The hue of a series of colors is supplemented by varying degrees of lightness or brightness and saturation or purity (Saunders 1998). Because it is useful to note that the laboratory setting can be adjusted for several environmental factors affecting the perception of color, the human subject still does not perceive the experiments and the colors exhibited as “natural” and all results must be seen to be subjective in this sense. Nevertheless, in regards to the average person’s work day, most colors perceived are within a contained setting not unlike a laboratory setting and the colors within a person’s work or home environment are influenced by those elements of brightness and saturation and are often compared to those elements which are familiar within our daily lives such as television and computer screens, and the dyes and fabrics used on the walls and furniture throughout the inside environment. The perception of color and the emotions related to particular colors are environmentally based and are therefore treated differently by humans in the natural world and the inside world (Saunders 1998).
The Study of Colors and Emotions
Throughout history color has always been associated with the emotions found in humans. One can be described as green with envy or feeling blue. While some people are described as viewing the world through rose colored spectacles, others can be seen as purple with fury (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995). Rather than just state the biological fact that humans perceive color as trichromatic and these colors can be influenced in laboratory or internal environments by brightness and saturation, most researchers also believe that color is perceived not only biologically but emotionally and can instigate actual physiological reaction patterns within us. These emotions which are triggered by reactions to certain colors are almost certainly based on emotions which occurred during similar circumstances when previous exposure to the color occurred. The perception of color is a highly subjective experience which is highly influenced by past events and connections between colors and seemingly unrelated stimuli. Humans are seen as passive recipients of the multiple stimuli which accompany the introduction of the humans to color (Schachtel 1943).
Other colors may be based on historical and formal connections which have been reinforced over the years. These connections are based on cultural differences as well. For instance, in the medieval heraldic system, the color white represented purity while the color yellow represented hatred. While these colors may have significance and representations in one culture, they may have little significance or completely difference representations in another culture (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995).
Researchers have tried to use the idea of synethesia to explain the perception of some colors in humans. Synethesia is an idea that the reaction to one stimulus somehow has a direct connection to the reaction of another stimulus. As an example they use that dark colors are often used to describe heaviness while reds and oranges may be used to describe warmth. Heavy is they extrapolated to imply negative and warmth would mean comfortable and positive. With this connection dark colors could imply negative thoughts while red colors could imply positive. Nevertheless, researchers may find they can make networks and connections using synethesia but are not satisfied with how synethesia occurs in the first place (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995).
Regardless of the origin of the sense or emotions which are related to color, it has been found that color, along with almost any object is ordered on a preferential scale by humans. An individual may prefer green over red, and in turn red over blue, and blue over black and so on. Most humans can tell you their preferential order for colors. Humans can usually also relate their preferential order of objects as well. While some humans may know that they prefer airplanes over trains but cannot necessarily tell you why, they know their preference nevertheless. It has been postulated then that there are perhaps connections between the color preferential scale and the object preferential scale in that those colors which are rated at the top of the preferential scale can somehow be connected whether by influence or not to the objects which are rated at the top of the object preferential scale. If somehow black is at the bottom of the color preferential scale and swimming is at the bottom of the object preferential scale because the individual is fearful of swimming, then perhaps it can be true that black can be connected to fear in a certain individual (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995).
Using this paired preferential treatment of color, researchers have also determined that since human preferences change over time and within changes of social and cultural environments, it can also be found that preferences in color can change over time as well. Not only has it been found that color preferences are environmental and changes in object preference, but also colors within groups vary according to the age of the subjects. Subjects were also able to categorize colors according to several dimensions, the most basic of these being whether or not a color perceived had a positive or negative effect on their emotions or whether or not they found the colors to be agreeable or not agreeable. In addition, subjects could link colors and emotions (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995). The colors used in the study consisted mainly of the primary colors red, blue, and yellow with the addition of green, black and white. The six emotions as defined by Ekman and Friesen (1975) consisted of anger, happiness, sadness, fear, surprise and disgust which was later changed to aversion.
In a simple trial, participants were asked to point to one of the six colors displayed when the emotions were read to them. They were allowed to select colors more than once. It was found that the link between the color and the emotion preferences varied between the age groups. The younger age groups had a much higher correlation between which colors were connected with which emotions, while the older age groups had a lower correlation. This is consistent with the theory that as individuals get older their preferences change based on experiences. While they may have had similar connections when they were younger, adverse or positive experiences changed the ranking individuals placed certain colors on their preferential scale. This does not mean that older individuals did not have strong reactions and preferences in colors, but children were more likely to match the color preferential scale with the object preferential scale on a consistent basis. For instance, adults rarely combined the color blue with happiness although the color blue was high on their preferential scale. The adult group was more likely to combine the emotion of happiness with yellow although the color yellow was lower on their preferential scale (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995). For the younger groups however, highly preferred colors were more closely associated with the more positive emotions.
Overall, adults preferred the color blue, followed by red, green, brown, yellow and black. Children on the other hand, prefer the colors red and yellow while the preference of blue and green increases over time. The “anti-colors”, black and white were considered to be ranked quite low in all the groups. This is found to be consistent across most studies conducted in Western societies (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995). Children and adults ranked their emotions differently as well. While both groups generally ranked happiness and surprise the highest followed by the four negative emotions of anger, sadness, fear and aversion, it was found that surprise and sadness became less preferential with age. Children seemed relatively accepting of fear, as they may experience fear on a daily basis at the younger ages whereas they ranked anger lower. Adults on the other hand, ranked fear lower as they generally defined fear as their inability to handle a situation whereas anger seemed to be well managed across the adult population (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995).
Other findings in the study indicated that children at around 11 years old began to make associations based on colors and emotions based on language cues in their society. While the children in this age group tended to match red with anger more than the younger children, the older adult groups did not have this same link. It is hypothesized then that the older adults disregarded the influence language had on their emotional perceptions of color and were more likely to rely on personal emotional experiences associated with emotions and color (Terwogt and Hoeksma 1995).
Taking the experimental preferences of emotion and color out of the laboratory setting and seeing how to best apply these findings in functional settings was the next step for researchers. In the last twenty years or so, educators have found that the introduction of color overlays within classroom settings can have an effect on the perceptions and retention of students within the classroom. Researchers found that when certain color overlays were used when students were working and wearing tinted glasses or reading using tinted light, the students had fewer complaints of eye strain and headaches and given the choice, the students preferred using the color overlays to not (Jeanes et al 1997). To see if the students’ performance increased with the type of color used for the overlays when reading, students were assigned random overlays and were said to report whether or not they preferred that color in addition to their performance being measured. It was found that students who were using overlays with colors they preferred have a higher level of reading level recorded than students who were using colors they didn’t prefer, complementary colors to their preferred colors, clear, or grey overlays (Jeanes et al 1997).
From the two studies mentioned then, researchers have found that humans can order preferential colors and can match these colors to emotions. The preference for colors changes over age in relation to the positive and negative emotions they perceive, and the use of these preferential colors in the work place or educational setting can increase productivity and performance levels.
The discovery of the correlation between colors and emotions and their effect on productivity has recently been adopted by the population to be used in the home and work settings. However this use of color to affect emotions is not new. In Egypt during ancient times, patients would be color diagnosed and then sent to an appropriately colored rooms to heal. Recently, restaurants are said to implement the use of yellows and reds to stimulate the appetite while hospitals have green rooms to soothe patients during their recovery (Rosselson 2001).
When color therapists analyze individuals they realize that the impact a color has on an individual is highly specific to the experiences and memories that colors invoke in a subject. In addition, colors which subjects or patients use on a regular basis can help the therapist analyze which emotions are prevalent in the subject and which emotions are needed. Often times, color therapy is combined with reflexology, aromatherapy and acupuncture each in relation to a patient’s preference.
Based on the previously discussed research studies though, it would be difficult to determine which colors would be the most beneficial to the work and home environments since human preferences for colors seem to be so specific to human experiences. There is no doubt that some workers react positively to a work environment while others feel a great deal of anxiety in relation to the visual stimuli found at work. Nevertheless, psychiatrists, color therapists and ergonomicists have tried to determine the most positively associated colors that work for the majority of human subjects from Western society. Rosselson (2001) tried to put together a useful guide of colors and emotions which they generate for the layperson based on a collection of findings she found. Generally, she wrote that it was found that red stimulated the nervous system and was also found to increase the breathing rate and boost skin and blood cell regeneration and is recommended to use red when an individual wants to increase energy. Orange is said to boost appetite and stimulate communication. Orange is recommended for use in social living spaces and dining rooms. Studies using yellow were said that it increased mental stimulation and boosted alertness and IQ levels and it is recommended to use yellow in an environment in which creativity needs to be enhanced. Green has been found to reduce stress and it also found to be the easiest color on the eyes as its wavelength is the only one which comes into focus when human eyes are at rest. Blue has been used in studies to relax muscles, lower blood pressure and was found to calm hyperactive children. Purple comes from the blue part of the spectrum and is said to provide some relaxation to subjects, in addition purple is associated often with spirituality and has a soothing effect and should be used when a subject wants to relax and perhaps sleep. Pink also has a calming effect on subjects and is used in some state prisons in rooms to calm aggressive prisoners (Rosselson 2001).
The relation of color and its effects on emotions is based a great deal on perception of color and the environment and emotional relationships individuals have experienced which cause them to make a connection between colors and emotions. Nevertheless, some generalities have been used to determine which age groups prefer which colors and which colors generate perceived emotions on groups. Children showed more preference for yellows and reds and correlated them with the positive emotions of happiness and surprise. In addition, yellows and reds have been found to provide subjects with an increase in energy and creativity. In daycare or home settings where these factors need to be encouraged, yellows and reds would be well suited. On the other hand, if a daycare setting has a great deal of trouble settling down their hyperactive children or find that they are unable to make the children focus on their activities, then the daycares may want to consider painting the environment with blues or pink in addition to providing a purple sleeping room for the children.
In the home environment, different colors can be used based on the preferences of the people within the home. While it has been found that adults tend to connect the feeling of happiness with the color of yellow, yellow still does not remain high on the preferential scale for adults. Orange may be used within the dining area to boost appetite while encouraging communication. For bedrooms, purples, greens and blues may be used to produce a calming atmosphere. Blues and greens are still highly preferred by the adult population and this may be one reason why, because it provides calm. Since green is the easiest color on the human eye, it may be beneficial to use greens in general living areas.
For the positive work environment, one color will not be preferred all workers. While it has been shown that reds, yellows and oranges provide the most stimulating and creative environments, adults still rank these low in the preferential scale whether or not this is in regards to language association or past experiences. Although yellows and reds are found in many fast food establishments, it was found to have a negative association with adolescents so in fact does not provide the ideal emotions for the employees. Purples and pinks in the work place may provide a calming atmosphere but may also calm the employees to such as extent that little or no work will be completed. This is also dependent on the individual as well, as many individuals may find that they are more productive while calm while others may find they are least productive while calm. Since greens and blues are also calming and easy on the eyes, these would most likely be the most positive colors to use in the adult work place as green is also found to stimulate growth and balance emotions and is found to be highly preferred by adults.
Ekman, P. & Friesen, W.V. (1975). Unmasking the face: A guide to recognizing emotions from facial clues. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall.
Jeanes, R., Busby, A., Martin, J., Lewis, E., Stevenson, N., Pointon, D. & Wilkins, A. (1997). Prolonged use of coloured overlays for classroom reading. British Journal of Psychology, 88, 531-548.
Rosselson, R. (2001, Oct. 28). Colour of cheer. Sunday Mail, p. 9.
Saunders, B. (1998). What is colour? (Man's perception of colors). British Journal of Psychology, 89, 697-704.
Schachtel, E.G. (1943). On color and affect. Psychiatry, 6, 393-409.
Terwogt, M.M. & Hoeksma, J.B. (1995). Colors and emotions: preferences and combinations. The Journal of General Psychology, 122, 5-17.