How much does colour influence our lives?

Let’s start with an exercise today.

Take a look at these well-known company logos:

red-fast-food-logos

What do they all have in common? … Yes, they are all fast food chains…but what else? Can you see it? Not hard is it…they all use the colour red!!

And now look at these logos:

blue-logos

What do they have in common? — DUH. They’re all electronics logos AND they’re blue.

Ok, fairly simple exercise, right? …So far.

Now, I would like you to look at the logos again and observe how you feel. Do you feel happier, sadder, more excited or calmer looking at one or the other logo group? If you do – congrats, you connect colours with emotions or feelings like most of us. If you didn’t…well, I’m sure there’s still hope for you…

Juuuuust kidding.

But seriously, have you ever wondered why food chains tend to select red colours and electronics companies blue? Is this all just a massive coincidence and I went cherry-picking on the internet selecting same-coloured logos from companies that happen to operate in the same businesses?

Nope. Actually, colour is a strategic and very important tool in advertising and branding because it’s a major factor influencing our moods, emotional states and decision-making.

But why?

Let’s start with the basics first, shall we. What is colour?

Well, to perceive colour, three components are needed: Light, an object and a viewer.

In its essence, light is just a form of energy which can be categorized in many different ways: intensity, frequency, brightness, etc. But, when talking about colours, we’re talking about wavelengths of light.

Ok, I don’t want to bore you with the physics part. I am no Sheldon Cooper and can’t find any way to make this funny, so I’m just going to summarize this as briefly as possible:

Light is part of the larger electromagnetic spectrum. In one part of the spectrum, there’s a bunch of wavelenghts  that create visible light, or colours. There are also shorter or longer wavelenghts of light that create “colours” we can’t see, for example ultra-violet, X-rays, microwaves, infra-red, etc…It’s still light and they are colours but the wavelenghts are either too short or too long for us to perceive (physics.about.com – yes, this is an OK source for a blog). This ties in with the next two components, objects and viewers.

So, let’s say light comes from sunlight. White light is colourless to our eyes, even though it actually contains all the colours  in the visible spectrum. The reason you can’t see it is because light needs to hit an object. So, when light hits an object, it blocks and reflects some of the wavelenghts/colours, making them visible to us.

Visible Light

So, how do these colours become visible to us? The short answer would be: Because our bodies are amazing miracles.

But let’s look at the long(er) answer:

Our retinas have two different types of receptors for colour which are called cones and rods. There are three types of cone cells which are basically tuned to different wavelengths: S, M and L cone cells (that’s short for short-, medium-, and long wavelength sensitive cones). L cone cells are most stimulated by red light, M-cones by green light and S-cones by blue light.  Additionally, you also have rod cells in your retinas that are sensitive to light intensity, making it possible for you to see things in low light (Roorda and Williams, 1999). So far so good.

On average, you have about 4.5 million cone cells and about 90 million rod cells in your retina (Curcio et al, 1990). So all this blue-green-red-bright-not-so-bright information is then sent to your brain where it is finally translated into colour by the “occipital lobes”  –  uh-huh, it’s all in your heeeeaaaaad! (said in creepy whispery voice).

“But hang on a minute! A second ago, you said there are only three types of cone cells which can perceive three different colours” (This is what I imagine you saying at this point).

Yes, it’s true, we don’t see the world in just blue, green or red. Cone cells don’t just perceive just one of these colours, it just means they are most stimulated by red, green or blue wavelenghts. Also, colours are actually made up of different wavelengths, of which we perceive one dominant one (colour hue). Aaaaand, the cells in our eyes and our brains work together in complex ways, which allows us to see many colour variations. In fact, you can see up to 7 million different colours (Sable and Acay, 2010). Life sure is colourful.

Nevertheless, most colours are some kind of variation of the primary colours red, blue and green. And the fact that we have three different type of cone cells also explains why human vision is classified as tri-colour vision, also called trichromacy or trichromaticism. There’s also tetrachromacy (four-colour vision), but only birds, insects and some fish are tetrachoromacs. This means, they can even see ultra-violet light (Lucky bastards).

Anyway, so now we know how colour becomes colour. But, let’s move on to the question that probably just popped into your head:

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

Well, if you remember our little exercise at the beginning of the post, colour actually has a big impact on how we feel and perceive the world.

Before we discuss explanations why colour makes us feel certain ways, let’s take a look at the way some colours influence us.

Let’s start with Red!

Individuals that are exposed to the color red show increased blood pressures and heart rates. In fact, perception of the colour red can enhance the human metabolism by 13.4% (Theroux, 1998). This basically means that red makes us more alert and excited. In a recent study, Hill and Barton (2009) also found that sports teams wearing red kits were more likely to win games (within their research setting). Many studies also suggest (Kandinsky, 1977; Babbit 1878; Gerard 1957) that red is a stimulant and triggers appetite in most people (GASP!!…FAST FOOD LOGOS!!). Moreover, Stone (2001) found that the arousal levels of people in red partitioned rooms were higher which made them more likely to commit errors in non-demanding taks.

Blue

Blue has been established to be the most calming, subduing, and least appetizing colour. In fact, some restaurants that had painted their walls blue observed lower appetite by customers. An experiment by Hettiarchchi and Silva (2012) also showed that experiment participants found blue food to be the least appetizing. Smith (1969) noted that blue light tended to lessen activity and crying by babies. Respiratory movement and frequency of eye–blinking was also found to decrease when subjects were exposed to blue light, as opposed to red light which increases blinking and respiratory movement (Bellizzi, Crowley and Hasty, 1983). Another study by Stone (2001) has also revealed that arousal levels decreased in blue partitioned rooms.

Yellow

Yellow is generally perceived to be a colour of joy and happiness. Wohlfarth (1985) found that repainting school classrooms with a warm light yellow could decrease students’ blood pressure and increase their good mood. Students that were exposed to yellow walls also showed significant increases in measures of self esteem and decreases in measures of sadness and aggression.

Wow.

So, fast food chains use primarily red and yellow in their logos. The grand idea is that you your appetite is stimulated and you feel happy at the sight of these logos (->you’ll BUY a delicious burger. or two). Electronics companies mainly use the colour blue in their logos to come across as professional and trusted brands. You feel calm looking at their logos, you are not alerted.

But the main question still is – why does colour make us feel like that?

Well, there are basically two main schools of thought when it comes to explaining responses to colours: One is that your responses are innate and physiological and the other one is that your responses are learned and associated.

There is some evidence that suggests that our reactions to colour are innate. As explained above, we do seem to have certain reflexes in the vascular systems triggered by colours. For example, red has been shown to increase perspiration and pulse rates, as well as greater frequency of blinking (similar results have been observed when exposed to yellow and orange), while blue and vioet seem to have reverse effects with lower pulse rates and blood pressure. Some studies argue that colours stimulate our hormone production through a neural pathway which carries light and colour to the hypothalamic midbrain region and pituitary glands. These glands control the entire endocrine (hormone) system which produces and releases hormones, which we all know affect our moods. Schauss (1982) says that the electromagnetic energy of colour interacts with the pituitary gland, therefore affecting the endocrine system that governs the basic body functions and emotional responses, such as aggression. However, there has been no conclusive evidence to support this hypothesis.

The other theory says that our physical reactions to colours are learned through associative processes. The idea that colour association is mainly a learned response is supported by the fact that colours evoke different reponses in different genders, age groups and ethnicities. It has been documented that colour perceptions differs among people from different geographical heritage, sunlight exposure or economic development. For example, white is often connected with purity and innocence (white wedding dresses!) in Western countries, while it symbolizes mourning and death in many Eastern countries. Red often symbolizes passion or aggression in the West, while in Eastern parts of the world it may represent luck. So, there is strong evidence pointing towards culture and conditioning as a factor in how we perceive colour (Akcay, 2010).

Ok, so if you think colour responses are innate, how do you explain different meanings of colours in different cultural settings? And if you accept the learned argument, how do you explain all the physical reactions we seem to have?

Well, some researchers say the answer lies “somewhere in the middle”. Physical reactions could be learned or enhanced through social settings, branding, advertising, cultural values and personal experiences associated with colours. Vining (2006) argues that both innate reactions and learned reactions have conditioned us to connect emotions to certain colours, similar to Pavlov’s bell.

Mahnke (1996) also suggests that colour association may be a combination of learned and innate responses, by identifying six layers of a “pyramid of colour experience”.

1. Innate Biological Reactions

2. Primordial associations from the collective unconscious which are connected to mankind’s entire experience. For example: Red -> Fire -> Alerted Or Blue food -> Poisonous berries -> Avoid.

3.  Symbolisms of the conscious

4. Cultural influences and mannerisms, including the influence of trends, fashions and style

5.  Personal relationships to colour which are connected with and influenced by all the other levels

There we go. Now we know a little more about how colour influences us in everyday life.

To conclude my post, I want to leave you with two things.

The first is a table, giving a quick overview of what colours are associated with in different countries.

And the second is a link to a really great documentary by the BBC on colour perception and association called “Do you see what I see” – Must see! Check it out!

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