Outside In: The Color of Introversion

How personality affects your taste in home decor

By Jorge S. Arango, published July 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Incredulous that your mate wants to paint the living room sunflower yellow? Unsure whether you should buy a modern or classic couch? Fashions in home decor change, but our personalities and past experiences affect how we respond to them, meaning we’re better off listening to our inner interior decorator than to the latest design guru on HGTV. Here’s advice for tackling the Big Three Decor Decisions to create rooms you can live with long-term.

Layout: Privacy vs. Society

While we all need a combination of private, semiprivate, and public spaces, “extraverts like openness and place high value on rooms to gather and socialize in,” says Toby Israel, an environmental psychologist and author of Some Place Like Home: Using Design Psychology to Create Ideal Places. “They may not need curtains on the windows. An extravert would want a desk facing a window to watch people walk by.” Conversely, introverts not only think more clearly in a den-like home office, but also feel more relaxed in smaller, intimate rooms. “They’re more likely to close a door to a room than an extravert and to prefer more acreage around a house.”

Introvert living with an extravert? Design to accommodate both. You might hang substantial window treatments rather than leaving windows uncovered, and create viable gathering spaces, such as a living room with couches facing each other and a coffee table large enough to hold a Super Bowl party spread.

Color: Energizing vs. Calming

Color affects everything from our moods to our heart rates. While blue is generally calming and red stimulating, in a recent article published in Color, Research & Application, participants in two different studies had such high cortical arousal in red rooms that it paradoxically lowered their heart rates. In a third study, multicolored rooms lowered participants’ heart rates more than gray ones. Introverts were the most strongly affected.

In one study, people reported feeling more positive in a red room than in a blue one. Those who started out in a bad mood worked faster on a routine task in a red room than in a blue one, and they wrote longer creative essays. But they made more clerical errors. Researchers cite the central nervous system arousal of the rosy hue.

Color is the most subjective design element because our past experiences, along with the associations of colors within our culture, affect our preferences in ways we may not realize. A Francophile, for example, might feel energized around navy blue because of the widespread use of the color in France. “Look at color in terms of your own past history of place,” says Israel, who helps clients identify positive aesthetic associations from childhood. “What colors were used in your relatives’ homes? If you spent hours in your grandmother’s cozy yellow kitchen, you might want to paint your kitchen yellow.”

Furnishings: Classic vs. Modern

If your feng shui consultant told you to throw out accessories with sharp angles, she had good reason. A recent Harvard study showed that the amygdala, the part of the brain involved in fear processing, is activated when we’re surrounded by sharp objects. This may explain why so many people like traditional furniture with its turned legs, smooth wooden surfaces, and ornamental curves.

But the spare, uncluttered lines of much modern decor can also be relaxing—the shape equivalent of modernism’s often unsaturated hues. And we have an innate attraction to airy, loft-like rooms, says Ingrid Fetell, a design researcher in Manhattan and PT blogger. “From an evolutionary point of view, openness and space let you see opportunities and threats, and in that way, are more relaxing, because you’re not going to be blindsided by anything.”

Israel administers the Myers-Briggs test to help clients choose furnishings that suit them. “ ‘Thinking’ types tend to prefer cooler colors and more modern, high-tech space. Feeling types are drawn to furniture with warmer colors and materials such as wood, and to softer forms. Laura Ashley prints might appeal to a feeling type,” says Israel.

What should you hang on the walls? While armchair art aficionados claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, numerous studies show that most people prefer realistic and natural scenes to abstract or man-made ones. People with a high need for structure, in particular, negatively rate abstract paintings, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Knowing the title of said abstract painting, however, gave these same sticklers for structure a more positive view. People who like abstract art tend to be sensation-seekers and more open to new experiences than those who prefer realistic art, according to a 2009 study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

But not all abstract art is the same, at least according to research done by Richard Taylor, a professor of physics at the University of Oregon. Taylor analyzed the drip paintings of Jackson Pollack and discovered that Pollock’s paintings are fractal in nature—the pattern of the entire painting is basically the same as the pattern of any small section, much the way a single branch of a tree shares the same basic pattern or geometry as the entire tree. This visual repetition and organization is part of what makes gazing at a tree, or a cloud—or a Pollock—so pleasing.

But art buyer beware: Taylor’s computer-assisted analyses of drip paintings showed that while Pollock’s paintings are fractal, Pollock knockoffs are not. So next time you buy a masterpiece (or perhaps, a poster of one), be sure it’s an original.