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Can Colors Make You Feel Better?

A skeptical look at “chromotherapy”

Imagine you are going through a stressful period in your life. Perhaps you have recently broken up with your partner, your beloved pet died, or you are preparing for an important job interview. Finding yourself in these challenging times, you are prone to accept any means that promise to help. A well-meaning family member has just read that exposure to the color yellow can energize you, and blue can make you calm and self-assured, boosting your confidence. You are desperate, so you decide to try these colorful methods. You clearly hope that changing colors in your environment will have the promised effects. The question is, will it?

Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Alex Perez on Unsplash

Answering this question is not trivial, especially when taking an evidence-based stance. Should we encourage you to spend money on color consulting, on chromotherapy, or on gadgets (e.g. colored glasses) that change your experience of environmental color? To say the truth, we do not know, because science is only starting to gather evidence on the psychological power of colors. We are proud to be part of this scientific process, and keen to share our evidence-based knowledge, here reporting on a recently published study (Jonauskaite, Tremea, Bürki, Diouf & Mohr, 2020).

In this recent study, we wondered whether one needs “chroma” in chromotherapy. Likely, the first reaction is “sure, one needs color, because chromotherapy is an intervention based on color.” Websites advertising chroma-based interventions support this view. One can read that “colors have the ability to calm, inspire, excite, balance or change our perceptions, which led to consider[ing] them as therapeutic tools for themselves.” You can also read the dubious claim that “Chromotherapy is the science of using colors to adjust body vibrations to frequencies that result in health and harmony. Each color possesses frequencies of a specific vibration, and each vibration is related to different physical symptoms.” Such statements highlight that the key ingredient to such chroma-based interventions is thought to be color. When color is removed, they shouldn’t work at all or be less powerful. We tested this assumption experimentally using a commercially available chromotherapy routine.

In this routine, people are invited to look at color circles of different shades. They also listen to peaceful music while being vocally guided through a meditation routine. They are told to concentrate on different parts of their body and imagine how the respective colors move through their body, for instance, through inhalation. We had a group of 30 non-color-blind participants complete this standardized 60-minute routine. We measured their levels of stress and anxiety before and after the routine and found that stress and anxiety were significantly reduced after the session.

At this point, you are likely to conclude that this chromotherapy routine is successful in reducing stress and anxiety. What we have not told you is that another group of 30 participants (the “control” participants) completed the same chromotherapy routine with one crucial change to the procedure – we did not show the color circles. These control participants listened to the same music and imagined the same energies flowing through their bodies while looking at a white sheet of paper. We again measured their stress and anxiety levels before and after the routine and found the exact same difference – stress and anxiety were significantly reduced after the session. These reductions were comparable to those of the group who did see the color circles.

Now, do these routines “work” or not? Or, at least, has this particular routine worked? The answer is – we cannot know for sure. First, we observed that stress and anxiety went down from before to after the session. But was it due to chroma? The answer is no, because the reduction in anxiety and stress was the same whether people saw the color circles or simply saw a white sheet. Second, we did not have a control condition in which another group of participants would have done something else, anything else but this routine. For instance, an additional group of control participants could have read a captivating text, or seen an absorbing film, or simply gone for a 60-minute walk. This group could have also followed another routine containing relaxing components such as music and voice, or music or voice alone. Possibly all these groups of participants would have experienced a reduction in stress and anxiety.

You might conclude: “Use whatever helps!” But should you?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Let us quickly think about the possibility of a placebo effect. This effect describes a remarkable psychological phenomenon in which an inactive ingredient like sugar, water, or a saline solution can improve how someone feels – simply because the person believes the treatment to be effective. Health practitioners use placebos to treat sufferings like pain or anxiety. Placebo effects might also play some role in chromotherapies. Because people believe that these routines have some desired effect, the necessary psychophysiological mechanisms may get activated, leading an individual to experience what he or she is expecting to experience.

In other words, if you believe that chromotherapy will make you feel better, it will likely do so. The placebo effect is real, and comes in many forms and with many different price tags. Thus, it’s up to you to decide which intervention is worth your time and money.

References

Jonauskaite, D., Tremea, I., Bürki, L., Diouf, C. N., & Mohr, C. (2020). To see or not to see: Importance of color perception to color therapy. Color Research & Application, 45(3), 450–464. https://doi.org/10.1002/col.22490

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