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Can Color Affect Our Mood and Cognition? It Depends

It appears that there are gender differences in perceiving hues of color.

Key points

  • The possible effect of color on mood and cognitive skills has been studied for years.
  • Studies found that working under red light increases the speed of finding an item on a list, while blue has been linked to more mental alertness.
  • Cultural differences can also affect how we respond to colors.

Years ago, I visited an elderly relative living in a hotel that had been converted to a sort of independent living facility (but without the amenities found in contemporary facilities). The place was clean and well maintained, but I found myself somewhat depressed and agitated after visiting her. When I left, I realized it was because the halls and the bedroom were painted a Pepto Bismol pink. The color was overwhelming in its aggressive pinkness.

And yet now, many years later, I was pleased to see pink on the newly painted walls of a rehabilitation facility that I pass during my morning walks with my dog. The floor-to-ceiling windows allow me to look inside the facility as it is being renovated. What will probably be the walls of the living room were painted in a color that resembled a strawberry smoothie. But unlike my aunt’s living quarters, the soft pink color was interspersed with panels of what looked like plants (artificial, of course) so the whole color scheme resembled, more or less, that of a garden. Rather than feeling agitated, the colors left me feeling soothed.

That color affects our mood and, according to recent research, possibly our cognitive skills, has been studied for years. In his comprehensive review of the scientific literature, Elliot gives us evidence that colors may affect the way we pay attention to tasks we are asked to do, or the rapidity in which we do them. Most of the information comes from laboratory studies in which subjects, usually young healthy males, are asked to perform a series of tests, often on a computer. However, it is not certain that we can extrapolate from these studies how a color like red or blue might affect the speed in which we do our income taxes or balance our checkbook.

Red and blue seem to be the preferred colors used in testing because they are primary colors. Red is a long light wave color, and blue a short-wave color on the color spectrum. Often white or gray are used as placebo (or control colors) because the testers don’t expect white, for example, to affect behavior or mood. Several studies found that working under red light may increase the speed of searching for and finding a particular item in a list. Would this mean that if you are looking for a particular tax form you put in a shoebox, you will find it faster under a red light?

Blue light has been shown to increase mental alertness compared to doing similar tasks under a yellow light. And blue on signs supposedly gives us a sense of confidence and trustworthiness in a product although, as Elliot points out, we do not trust meat that has turned blue.

The effect of color in influencing customer satisfaction and purchasing behavior has been used to plan the decoration of indoor space. A restaurant/café undergoing renovations was used to test the effect of interior walls painted yellow or violet on the satisfaction responses of more than 250 participants. The violet interior was perceived more positively than the yellow, and young customers seemed to be more aware of the color environment than older participants.

However, studies on the effects of color on mood and behavior are hard to carry out because there are many factors that can influence color perception. An obvious one is how well the subject sees color. Sensitivity to color can range from color blindness or color vision deficiency to extremely sensitive responses to tiny variations in shade. Color blindness is caused by a reduction in cells in the retina—rods and cones—that detect light. Rods detect light and darkness, while cones detect color. Color blindness results from a deficiency or absence of color cone cells. The absence of color perception can range from mild (in which colors are seen in good light, but not dim) or severe color blindness in which everything is perceived in shades of gray (like a black and white movie).

The aging eye also loses color perception; yellows and other pastel colors may appear to be white. Cataracts may make colors take on a brown or yellow tinge, or decrease the ability to distinguish blues, greens, and purples, making them appear gray. Gender affects color perception as well. Women are better able to distinguish between tiny gradations in a particular color than men. Thus, a woman could look at paint samples for white and distinguish between a grayish or creamy white more easily than a male.

These variations in color perception, affected as they are by age and gender, must affect how colors influence our mood and our performance. For example, studies done on 30-year-old males may not have much relevance for 84-year-old females.

Cultural differences also affect how we respond to colors. In her description of cultural differences in the symbolism of colors, Bernadine Racoma tells us that the color of blue is thought to repel evil and promote healing in Middle Eastern cultures, or may be associated with a deity as in Hinduism. Red is another color with different associations depending on the culture. In Asian cultures, red is associated with luck, wealth, good fortune, and longevity, and it is forbidden to wear red clothing at a funeral. However, in some African countries red is associated with death. And the color of clothes symbolizing mourning varies significantly among cultures. Black is worn in Western countries, whereas white is the color of mourning in many Asian cultures.

The consensus among so-called color psychologists is that there is no consensus. Figuring out how best to improve mood and amplify our cognitive skills is at best a work in progress. Too many variables influence our perceptions and responses to color to allow us to claim that color X is better than color Y in making us perform better or be less grumpy. But personally, I would like to make a case for not painting every room and hallway in a residence for elderly people a deep pink.

More from Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
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