Ask Smithsonian: How Do Colors Affect Our Moods?

Whether you are feeling green with envy or you’re singing the blues, the link between color and feeling is a highly individual thing

There are few universal truths when it comes to how humans feel about color.

Here’s one: “Cross-culturally, the most highly favored color is very saturated blue,” says Steve Palmer, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. That color is favored because it’s associated with things that are almost all good—a deep, clean lake, a clear sky or a beautiful sapphire gemstone.

Otherwise, preferences for certain colors, or associating them with certain moods or emotions or values, are highly individual and subjective—and strongly influenced by culture and personal experience, says Palmer, an expert on visual perception and color preference.

Humans of all ages and cultures have color preferences. The question is, why do those preferences exist and how did they get there?

A preference for some colors may be innate—not exactly hard-wired into the DNA, but there in some minimal form. Over time, however, humans alter their preferences and the good or bad things they associate with those colors.

For instance, Palmer and his colleagues found that when presented with a series of colors, adults least-liked a greenish-brown color he calls “yucky poo,” because they associated it with bad things: feces, snot and rotting vegetation. In the same study, however, babies curiously liked that particular hue best.

In a 2011 study of students at Berkeley and Stanford—archrival colleges—the Berkeley students had positive associations with their school’s blue and gold but negative associations with the “Stanford” red and white. The opposite was true for the Stanford students, who had a strong dislike of the “Berkeley” blue and gold, but a love for their school’s red and white.

“I don’t think such differences are innate,” says Palmer. “It seems more and more clear to us that people’s color preferences are adaptive and change over the course of even hours or days,” he says.

People tend to like colors they associate with objects they love or consider to be good things—they like red because it’s the color of strawberries or cherries or red lips. And that can influence a person’s mood or their actions—when it comes to choosing a sweater, what food to eat or what product to buy.

Palmer has found that when people are presented repulsive objects in a color they liked before—say a red, runny eyeball instead of a ripe cherry—they have a decreased preference for the previously liked color.

Red is perennially talked about, as it is attached to so many emotions. It is the color of blood, and it is often used to represent anger, romance or danger, says Palmer.

Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, has found that red is associated with sweetness, so much so that participants in one of his studies thought that salty popcorn tasted sweet because it had been served in a red bowl.

Coca-Cola and other food and beverage companies have engaged Spence to help them more precisely know—and influence—their consumers.

The Spence findings might not hold up in every culture, though. Research and observations around the world have documented differences in preference and perception among various cultures.

Palmer recently completed a study—as yet unpublished—that found a significant difference in color preferences between American and Chinese participants. All were asked to write down both concrete objects and symbols or abstract concepts associated with particular colors, and then they were asked how much they liked the particular objects and concepts or symbols. Objects were the crux of the color preferences for the Americans, while the concepts and symbols mattered more to the Chinese participants.

“It’s pretty unlikely you could account for this through DNA or genetics, since the basic biology underlying basic color vision is the same for all people with normal color vision,” says Palmer.

Then there are color consultants who help advise companies on packaging and logos, offices on how to boost productivity or create areas of relaxation, and homeowners on how to tailor each room. While some purport that certain colors connote certain traits—say, purple with creativity—Palmer says there haven’t been many studies backing up those kinds of statements.

“I think they make a lot of it up, just based on their own intuitions,” he says. “That’s not to say that it’s wrong,” he says, noting that there could be some plausible reasons as to why some colors might stimulate creativity or promote sleep or calmness, he says.

It’s important to keep studying color preferences, as it yields significant insights into human nature, Palmer says. “If [we] want to understand why people do the things they do,” he says, researchers have to know what’s governing their choices, “and that includes aesthetic choices, such as color preferences.”

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