The Father of Colour Theory
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (pronounced ger-ter) had fingers in more pies than a three-handed pastry judge working overtime. Not only did this famous Frankfurt-born figure write a slew of influential novels, plays and poems; he also dabbled in philosophy and religion, helping shape the views of many great thinkers like Nietzsche and Jung.
As if that weren’t enough, Goethe’s scientific interests led to works that are often highlighted as influences for Darwin’s famous evolutionary theory. It’s safe to say: the man was a hero of intellectual progress.
With all of Goethe’s achievements in mind, discussing his ideas about the potential impact of colour on human psychology might seem a little ‘small fry’ in comparison. They might seem that way, but in fact, his colour theory sparked a colour-based school of thought that continues to this very day and affects our lives in a number of often-overlooked ways.
An aspect of Goethe’s colour theory revolved around the connection between colour and human emotion. By creating a colour wheel, he showed how colours’ properties change as they blend into one another, bringing with them different emotional associations.
Between red and blue are a series of ‘minus’ hues that more readily evoke unpleasant emotions; between red and yellow are ‘plus’ hues that tend towards positivity and warmth in their observers. Finally, as a perfect balance between blue and yellow (the core ‘minus’ and ‘plus’ colours), we find green as the most neutral and agreeable colour.
It’s also interesting to note that—no doubt inspired by this theory—a specific shade of green is used for behind-the-scenes elements of Disneyland theme parks. The idea being to choose the most neutral colour in order to draw the least attention. This “Go Away Green” can be searched online; it’s a widely recognised technique used by the Disney company.
These basic ideas persist and form our basic understanding of colour’s effect on human psychology today. Yellow is happy and vibrant; blue is cold and sad—pretty simple stuff. Since then, researchers have embarked on countless quests to develop the ideas proposed by Goethe. And as it turns out, however, emotional psychology and scientific methods aren’t always the best fit…
The Science of Emotions
Goethe’s writing on the subject can definitely be criticised for its vague and interpretive tone: it’s a hard thing to avoid when entering the realm of human emotions. Granted, as a poet, he most certainly made a point to embrace—let’s say—creative language. Blue, for example, isn’t just a cold and distant colour: for Goethe, it “retires from us” like “the upper sky and distant mountains”. Undoubtedly a pretty image, but not much cop when viewed from a data-driven, scientific perspective.
Indeed, it’s this difficulty in quantifying emotional states that has continually stumped the researchers following in Goethe’s wake. How, for example, would a scientist produce figures and hard data on the effects of red, as opposed to blue, on levels of aggression in humans? They can’t. At best, researchers can observe and interview enough people subjected to each colour, and attempt to find a clear behavioral consensus among them.
These loose findings can then be presented as a series of statements that, while true, are too abstract to be used in comparisons with other studies. Scientific progress comes from the ability to work from and build upon existing knowledge. Without data, this is nigh on impossible and progress suffers as a result.
In fact, solid developments on the topic of colour theory have been so few and far between that they often appear as mere reinterpretations of Goethe’s original work, not unique scientific endeavours in their own right. Still, it’s worth giving credit to the findings and insights of the precious few who have covered intellectual ground beyond the realm of Goethe’s understanding.
Several studies have suggested that psychological reactions to colour in many animals — not just humans — developed because of the various evolutionary advantages they provide. One observation by Hill and Barton (2005) noted that several animals, humans included, exhibit a flushing of the face in aggressive situations, caused by blood rushing close to the surface of the skin. This lends credence to the idea of red being a lively, full-on and sometimes downright aggressive colour.
Adding to this idea, Mark Changizi, a cognitive scientist, proposed that visceral reactions to colour are so strong in humans because they help us determine the health and wellbeing of our friends and family. Paleness or a greeny/blue complexion signifies illness or shock; redness, on the other hand, can denote anger, arousal or embarrassment.
These health and emotional indicators can’t be hidden or easily faked and so—being social creatures—they benefit humans greatly. It just so happens, of course, that the side effect of this is an emotional reaction to those same colours (red, green, blue etc.) outside the context of face-to-face interaction. Picasso’s ‘Blue’ Period? That’s right, we’ve got evolution to thank for it.
Get That Light Out of My Eyes!
Moving onto a different type of colour reaction. Less emotional, more physiological and almost certainly one you’ll be familiar with: blue light. Normally found emitting from the Sun, blue light bounces around the Earth’s atmosphere in abundance, suppressing melatonin (the brain’s ‘sleepy’ hormone) and keeping us all alert and wakeful. That is, until night. As you may be aware, blue light is also emitted by the LEDs in our phones, computers and TVs. As bedtime draws near, our tendency to stay glued to those screens leads to a melatonin deficiency, which in turn causes restless nights and ruined sleep cycles. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of our lifestyles and another way in which colour affects our lives.
Food Glorious Food
We all know the saying, when it comes to food “the first bite is with the colour receptors”… wait, that’s not it? Well maybe it should be; the colour is just about the most important of a meal’s various visual components. A study by Wheatley (1973) helped prove this with a Dr Seuss-esque ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ trick. In a dim room, Wheatley gathered his participants and served them each a steak dinner that had been dyed unnatural colours: blue steak, green chips and red peas.
However, owing to the dim lighting, the food appeared completely normal, and the diners acted accordingly. There were no complaints and—by all accounts—the food was perfectly adequate. When lights were turned up and the trick was revealed, nausea and a feeling of illness overcame the guests. Nobody had found fault with the food until its true colour was revealed. And if the lighting had never returned to normal? Well the clueless diners would have gobbled up their blue steaks and felt none the worse for wear: it was purely the impact of colour that led to an entire room of half-eaten dinners and stomach-clutching diners.
Various studies have also confirmed that a large part of the perceived flavour of artificial foodstuffs comes from its colour. For many, orange juice is hard to distinguish from any other flavour of juice in a blind taste test. Its bright orange appearance is a core part of the drink’s ‘orangey’ taste!
The Colourful Conclusion
Goethe was right. The colour wheel has a powerful hold on us. Next time you’re out and about, maybe gazing at some advertisements or eyeing up people’s clothing as they walk on by, pay extra close attention to all the reds, blues and yellows in the world; you’ll be surprised at how malleable your mood can be when colour gets involved. It may be hard to prove with data and hard figures, but psychology—particularly emotional psychology—has always been that way, and maybe it always will.
With passions ranging from running, to gaming and a little bit of music somewhere inbetween. Jamie wants to learn a little bit about everything in an effort to prove his theory that even life's mundanities are hiding fascinating secrets.