Red, Green, and Blue, for the Holidays

Holiday colors influence how we think and feel.

Posted Dec 12, 2016

Red, green, and blue are everywhere at this time of year. They are the “official colors” of several year-end holidays—and in 2016 there is even more green around because Pantone has designated a yellow-green, Greenery, as its Color of the Year 2017 (for a peak at Greenery, look here.) We’ll leave the challenges of working with yellow-yellow greens, which are not very popular, to another article.

What does science have to say about how our favorite holiday colors, red, green, and blue, influence our lives?

Andrew Elliot and his colleagues researched how people respond to red, and what they’ve learned supports gifts of red pajamas, at least for some of the people on your gift list. The work by Elliot and team provides scientific support for red’s popularity during February. Women wearing a standard, typical red or standing against a similarly red background in photos, seem more attractive and sexually desirable to men than women not wearing red or near those red backgrounds. The red has no effect on a man’s belief in a woman’s likability, kindness, or intelligence. Women looking at men wearing red or against red backgrounds are similarly influenced, with men wearing red or in front of red surfaces being seen as more attractive and sexually desirable. Men in red or near red are perceived by women as having higher status than men who aren’t wearing or near red; red clothes and backdrops don’t seem to influence how men perceive other men. Also, wearing or standing against a red background did not influence how likable, agreeable, or extraverted a man in an image seemed to women views.

Seeing red also gives us a burst of strength to do work that doesn’t require fine motor coordination.  So red can be a good color to use in spaces where people will lift weights, for example.

In addition, looking at warm colors can make us feel hungry, which can be a good or bad thing. We’re also drawn to warm colors; so adding them to the far wall of a long hallway can make it more likely that we'll actually make our way to the end of that corridor. We think places featuring warm colors are physically warmer than those heavy on cool ones, so color can be used in hard to heat or cool spaces to make people feel more comfortable, and maybe even save some energy, as well.

Looking at red isn’t always a good idea, however. Elliot and his fellow researchers have also found that when even the tiniest scrap of a classic red, like the ones in teachers’ pens and pencils, comes into view, even briefly, our analytical performance on knowledge work type tasks degrades. Good thing tax season doesn’t really kick off until after the holidays. Rutchick and his research team found that people using red pens make more errors than people using black ones, so expect more cross outs when holiday messages are written in red ink than when they’re in black. 

Gazing at green has its advantages. A team led by Lichtenfeld linked seeing greens to enhanced creative performance on tasks similar to knowledge work. So, red impedes analytical performance, without affecting creative thought, while seeing green seems to spur creativity without affecting our ability to analyze situations, facts, etc.

Blue can be a restful or energizing color, and it is more likely to be selected as a favorite color than any other, worldwide—green is the second most popular color on Earth. Seeing blues that are really saturated but not very bright, such as sapphire shades, gives us an energy boost. Viewing not as saturated but brighter blues, like many baby blues with a grayish tinge, is more relaxing. Blue is a color we associate with competence and trust, almost always good things to bring to mind.

Use the holiday season’s reds, greens, and blues carefully. How you choose to decorate for the holidays may influence your physical and mental wellbeing and performance in ways you haven’t anticipated.