The Big Idea
The colours we wear, the colours we choose to paint our rooms with those we choose to accessorise our homes and ourselves with can affect our mood and our behaviours. When Dr Iain told me that colour is so powerful that scientists can predict our behaviour if they dress us in a certain way or put us in a particular colour of environment for a while, I’ve got to say (full disclosure!) I wasn’t so sure I absolutely believed him! So, being the cynical and curious soul that I am, I went to read up on the science for myself.
You won’t be surprised to know – he was absolutely right!
So here are some amazing studies about colour that I then found out about with a quick bit of Google-power.
- In a study in England, adults were given some Lego to play with – and given a simple instruction -“ do something that has never been done”. The adults were split into 2 groups and the only difference between the groups were that one group was given those instructions written down in blue. The other group were given the instructions in red. The blue group made things that didn’t make sense! They were creative and a bit crazy! The red team made logical objects that they thought hadn’t been invented yet.
- A study of 1000 people across 3 continents found that people in more colourful offices were more alert, interested, friendly, confident and joyful than those in neutral offices. Also people in monochrome offices were found to be 10% less productivity and 15% more at risk of burnout.
- In Tirana, Albania – Edi Rama, the mayor who was a painter and former art teacher mandated that the buildings in the centre of the decrepit city were painted in bright colours. The result? People stopped littering the streets, streets felt safer, crime began to fall and people started to pay more tax – by a factor of six.
- You will estimate the the temperature to be warmer by 2 degrees if you are dressed in red – this is why you so often see climbers at the peak of Everest posing for their celebration photograph in red. It is also why people in another experiment put more ice into a glass when they poured a Coca-Cola than a Pepsi – because they perceived the Pepsi to be cooler going into the glass than the Coke!
- Colours links can be directly attributable to more clicks. Google were estimated to have made a cool extra 200 million dollars by changing a link from a greenish blue to a more blue-ish blue! So even shades matter.
Another study looked into how we subconsciously communicate with colour. 500 people were asked to bring their entire wardrobe and to arrange it in a circle – with the different colours arranged together to form a circle. Unsurprisingly, everyone has a different circle. However, what was interesting was that when researchers asked the 500 people to choose a garment to express a particular behaviour – so which garment would you wear to impress someone, or to show you care, people instinctively chose the same colours – despite the range out outfits in their wardrobes – and in the vast majority of cases, the colour of the garment matched what scientists have come to know are the particular moods and behaviours stimulated and encouraged by those colours. So the upshot of that experiment is that if you stood in front of your wardrobe and actively think about what effect would you like to achieve today – you are likely to choose the right colour instinctively and without giving it too much thought!
Hence the first challenge for our testing partners this week. To take a picture of your wardrobe and see if you actually have enough colour in there to cover all the bases! For example, we have come to know that RED is a great colour to express power and authority – so do you have a great red dress? We have come to know that PINK is a colour that calms people down and removes aggression (one prison in Seattle actually painted the whole place pink – bars and all – and it worked!), but do you have a pink shirt you can wear for a meeting where you think emotions might run high? You are likely to choose perfectly the right colour to match your day – but maybe you don’t give yourself the best chance of tuning into your intuition, because your wardrobe is full of grey, navy and black?
Our other challenge we have set our testing partners is to start to notice how being around colour makes you feel personally. Are you drawn to using particular rooms in your house for particular tasks? Is there a correlation between the science of colour and what you notice about where you go? Do you avoid particular spaces or areas of your office because they make you feel a bit anxious or you find you don’t perform well in them? (For example too much YELLOW increases metabolism which can be a good thing – but it can also create feelings of frustration and anger. People are more likely to lose their tempers in yellow rooms and babies cry more when surrounded by yellow.)
Got it…What’s the Science
Let’s tackle the wardrobe first. You could be suffering from a bit of chromophobia – a mild fear of colour. Apparently because we can see colours as childish or frivolous and we mostly want to be seen as adult and serious in our choice of profession, we fill our wardrobes with more neutral colours!
Onto some more robust science. A study that Dr Iain loves is from Kiel university which is in Germany and was done by Professor Axel Buether, who we can trust knows his onions because his professorship is in Neuropsychology and design. In his study he got 500 people to dress head to toe to try out a basic colour in different places. He wanted to analyse colour on different people, doing different things and in varied situations. He got them to document their behaviour over 24 hours and to record how they felt. His findings had such implications for us all. Firstly for those of us feeling a bit low in mood after lockdown, wear grey with caution. In Buether’s study people noticed they felt depressed after 24 hours surrounded by grey. (I was personally delighted that Silver was recorded as a completely different colour and experience in the study given my favourite jumper of all time is woven silver and I’m very fond of it!)
Buether added another different layer to his experiments that he didn’t tell his 500 testers about. He employed observers to take pictures of the people in the experiment going about their daily lives. Then, without editing the pictures, they looked at the posture, body language and behaviours of the people and compared them. When they looked at all the pictures afterwards, as scientists and being conscious of their own biases, they could still see clearly that people actually behaved differently when wearing different colours.
Those wearing BLACK played it cool. Those wearing GREEN had more pictures than anyone else being playful or doing tasks involving regeneration. Those in WHITE were photographed being cautious or looking artificial and spending very little time in relaxing, casual poses. People in ORANGE were seen showing vitality, energy and more than usual levels of spirituality.
Professor Buether’s work found that colour association and our memories of what particular colours means that colour psychology is difficult to study. So we only see gorgeous, inviting, exciting or ugly colours because our perception of them is determined by the power of our memories. He doesn’t attempt to explain how colour is perceived globally, as he also suggests there are cultural senstivities at play. However, he did establish that 13 basic colours do have a powerful and shared effect on our mood and behaviours in a European/Western context
Remember that whilst you might have a particular aversion to a colour because it reminds you of your school dining room, most of the power of colour isn’t about our individual memories – it is about the evolution of shared memories and those of our ancestors that affect our response to colour. So for example, One study found that the colour red increases desire in men by 25%. Another study reminds us that generations ago, men needed to sense when a good time to go out hunting was and when to stay home because their female partner was ovulating. They learnt instinctively that when the vulva was more red it was not the time to go out hunting mammoths! And is anyone attracted to grey meat – or did we learn the hard way that red is best?!
My husband did his first degree in Biology and specialised in evolution. I asked him for a quote. It was short and to the point “Colour conveys an evolutionary advantage or it wouldn’t exist. Full stop.” We have talked a lot about nature in #Tip8 and #Tip11 and returning to the natural world it can tell us a lot about the science of colour. It takes a lot of energy for plants and flowers to create colour and flowers – so for that energy to be invested it must be doing something that conveys and evolutionary advantage – it must help that plant to survive and thrive. Thinking about colour does for insects, animals, birds and ourselves – it gives us Orientation enabling us to find our homes and food. Colour provides Camouflage. It enables us to Keep Warm because there are other similar people or creatures there and it gives an Identity – Choosing colour marks us out as special and different to others – even where people have a similar house on a similar street, it is usually different thanks to choices of colour.
Our brain can recognise colours. You might have a vague memory of being told that light travels in waves from school? Each colour wave has a different length and so is processed differently by our retina where there are neurons that process the lengths of the waves by doing some maths (that I won’t explain but do look up a rather cool scientist called Pupa Gilbert who is a professor of Physics to find out more about the maths of colour!) The maths messages that identify colour are passed to our hypothalamus. The hypothalamus affects our sleep and behaviour patterns, our body temperature and our metabolism and appetite. So particular colours do seem to impact the hypothalamus in different ways.
We also perceive colour and taste together – and what we know can be confused if our expectations don’t match. It amused me to find an experiment that had been done with . It amused me that they took some experienced oenophiles in France at Bordeaux University and gave them the same wine to drink – and added some neutral tasting colours to the same wine. When they added yellow, the tasters were more likely to come up with words associated with yellow coloured wines “toasty/buttery” and when tinted with red the same wine was described as being reminiscent of “strawberries/leather”. Our brains seem not to be able to cope with a big of cognitive dissonance if our taste doesn’t match the colour – and so in the confusion, our brain takes a short cut – and gets it wrong.
We could go on, and if you want to do a quick internet search and you will find there are stories about RED football teams (which I am not repeating as my team wears BLUE). There are also stories about why soap powders have red words on the packaging and blue and green specks in the laundry – which have nothing to do with washing efficacy, but lots to do with whether your brain thinks your washing is cleaner and fresher! In summary, colour is definitely something to add to your radar. Wearing it, being surrounded by it can absolutely influence your mood and performance. So be armed, beware and get some colour in your life!
Watch our #Tip17 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With this week’s unfortunate technical glitch that kicked us all off the live :0((
Also looks like you are drinking Guiness ;0))
How colours affect the way you think – BBC article
Effects of Office Interior Color on Workers’ Mood and Productivity – Kwallek, N. (1988)
8 views of Tirana, Albania — with its bright, multicolored buildings – TED Blog
If optical illusions are your thing then definitely look up Pupa Gilbert for some fun. She shows a red heart that you stare at – with a cross in it. If you stare at it for a long time you get adjusted to red. You stop seeing it – so then if you go to just a cross for the next picture – you “see” a heart that it is not there – but its turquoise – which is the combination of blue and green light because your eyes have stopped seeing red. It’s mind blowing !!! Pupa Gilbert
There are some no brainers to try here. If you want to up your creativity, put some blue clothes on or write in blue pen. If you need to work on a project that requires logical thinking and you are feeling a bit tired and need to push yourself to work for a bit longer, put your blue pen away and get your red one out, because science has linked it to increased rational thinking and giving you energy.
If you notice a crying baby has a yellow blanket, take it off them and give them your pink scarf instead and look like a genius when they cry a bit less!
Using colour to create the best environment for our brains to think in is so simple and require no more investment than a set of coloured pens! Dulcie is also rather drawn to a full new technicolour wardrobe for work…That might take a bit more time and investment so we will keep you posted on the result of that experiment!
Tales from our Test Partners
We mentioned no our live show that one of our testing partners Linda Stephens already has an interesting story to tell about the power of colour!
“My business is called Cobalt Red. Not only are these my 2 favourite colours but there is some science behind my choice of words and the colours I have chosen. First of all in psychology, the Stroop effect is the delay in reaction time between automatic and controlled processing of information, in which the names of words interfere with the ability to name the colour of ink used to print the words. The impact is that the brain takes notice and the phrasing is novel. The more prosiac reason is that people are curious, which opens up questions and starts engagement – bread and butter for coaches. You now know that these colours are favourites, so it was a bit of a no-brainer to use the design of a great necklace as the basis for the company logo.”
Cobalt Red and Linda
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