I always thought I knew why chameleons changed color. How wrong I was.  

Chameleons are famous for changing color but have you ever really considered why they do it?  Most of us would say…to blend in.  But, in some cases, it’s just the opposite. 

For years, I thought chameleons change color to “fit in” — for camouflage.  But, of course, in their normal color state, they already blend in.  So, it turns out they change color to be different

Oustelet's Chameleon, Sheppard Software site

A few years ago, Dr. Devi Stuart-Fox (The University of Melbourne, Australia) and colleagues learned that chameleons change color for several reasons.  One of the biggest is to communicate and stand apart from their surroundings. In essence, they change color to stand OUT, not to “fit in.” 

When they change color to stand out, they do it quickly, sometimes too fast for humans to see. That fast flash of color sends a signal to other chameleons — “I’m a good mate,” or “get away from my turf,” or “look at me, I’m doing something great.” (At least that’s what we might think they are “thinking,” but can we truly know!?). 

On the other hand, sometimes chameleons change color slowly, mostly as a way to adjust to changing environmental conditions.  When it’s hot out, they lighten up; when it’s cold, they get darker.  In this case, the change may seem less noticeable because it's slower. 

So how could this piece of trivia from a field we may not normally study be useful to us in the workplace or at home? 

You may already use it, without thinking about it.

For organizations, the idea of changing fast or slow could come into play when introducing a new product. The organizations may try to stay “camouflaged,” or blend in, until a new product is ready to launch. THEN they burst onto the scene and “change color” fast to communicate what they’re doing in a big splash. 

Apple does this in a way — by keeping a product under wraps until the BIG announcement, when they show the colors in a flashy way. 

How would an individual use this? Just think of the person who rarely shows anger.  The impact — when she DOES get angry — is much more powerful. That flash or quick “change of color” by showing emotion or anger makes her stand out so much more, and makes a bigger impact. 

So what about changing slowly?  Just as chameleons may change slowly to adjust to their environments, so too might organizations and humans as well.  I SWEAR that’s what’s going on when I buy toothpaste and seem to get a bigger tube with less in it?  Or smaller soup cans for the same price?  The firm selling toothpaste or soup may be adapting to the environment by raising its prices unobtrusively — or maybe it’s trying to help ME to adapt — perhaps so I won’t notice it as quickly.   

Panther Chameleons, Panther Passion Tours

As an individual, the slow change approach may also be something we use — whether trying to adjust our families’ eating habits or change the way we deal with a colleague at work. 

So think about how you might be a chameleon — changing to stand OUT or changing slowly to adapt.  What color might you be!?

 * * *

Stuart-Fox, D. and Moussalli, A. 2008. Selection for conspicuous social signals drives the evolution of chameleon colour change. PLoS Biology: 6(1): e25-e32.


About the Author

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D.

Nancy K. Napier, Ph.D., is Professor of Strategy and International Business at Boise State University.

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