The Power of Colors to Affect Mood and Performance

How do you feel right now? It may depend more on the colors surrounding you than you would expect. The following studies only scratch the surface of how colors can affect our performance and well-being.

“Warm” Colors Increase Thermal Comfort

Color can affect how warm you feel, even if you are merely thinking of a color.

Image by Thomas D, used under the Creative Commons License

Image by Thomas D, used under the Creative Commons License

One study placed participants in chambers filled with either red or blue light. It found that the participants in the chambers with red light preferred an ambient temperature a few degrees lower (0 to 4 degrees Celsius) than those in the blue-lit chambers.[1]

More impressively, a Harvard study found that when meditation practitioners visualized red hot embers or flames within their bodies (as part of a practice known as “Tummo”), they were able to increase their body temperature in their extremities by as much as 8.3 °C (14.9 °F).[2]

Pink Reduces Aggression

Research into color schemes within California prisons found that the color pink has a tremendous tranquilizing effect on aggressive behavior — so much so that when the muscular strength of 153 subjects was tested before and after momentarily viewing a pink sheet of construction paper, only 2 did not demonstrate a loss in strength.

Another study of 38 subjects showed that the color pink can decrease muscular strength by 6 to 38 percent. The hue has been successfully used as the wall color in prison holding cells to calm inmates, and the effect has been proven to occur regardless of whether the subject tries to control it — even when tested on those with extensive practice in martial arts or yoga.[3]

Red Makes You Anxious, Hinders Creative Thinking

At least four experiments show that the color red decreases performance on IQ tests in comparison to other colors (i.e., green, black, white, or gray), and one study shows that perceiving red evokes an “avoidance motivation” — that is, participants opted to engage in easy tasks instead of difficult tasks.[4] This “avoidance motivation” tends to increase performance on detail-oriented tasks but hinder performance on creative tasks.[7]

The “avoidance” mindset is further seen in the effects of the color red in sports. Competitors that face opponents wearing red lose games and competitions significantly more often.[5]

Finally, a study of adults given typing tasks within either red or blue offices found that those kept in red offices reported higher anxiety and stress.[6]

Green Reduces Stress

Green_Room

Notice that surgeon gowns are usually green or blue. Surveys of people who were shown pictures of hospital rooms of different colors found that green walls had a slight stress-reducing effect while orange walls had a slight arousal-inducing effect. The effect was more pronounced for those who qualified as “low-screeners”, a proxy used in the experiment for sensitivity to environmental changes.[8]

Blue is Relaxing, Enhances Creativity

“Cool” colors such as blue tend to have a relaxing effect, opposite that of “warm” colors such as red and orange. Authorities in Glasgow, Scotland and Nara, Japan found that installing blue lighting in certain areas significantly decreased crime rates.[9]

Two studies show that blue enhances performance on creative tasks.[10]

White Promotes Trust

Ever wonder why almost all government buildings are white? A study on marketing students found that when they were exposed to advertisements with “high-value colors” (those with a  whitish pigment), they were more relaxed and found the advertised brand more likable.[11]

Yellow Promotes Hunger and Social Activity

Notice that almost all fast food logos include yellow and red. Image by Crusier (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

McDonald’s picked the perfect color for its golden arches. A study of guests in different colored cocktail party rooms (i.e., red, blue, and yellow) found that guests were more socially active in both red and yellow rooms, but that those in the yellow rooms ate twice as much. On the other hand, those in the red rooms reported feeling hungrier and thirstier.[12]

While on the topic of hunger, if you want to make your meals more filling, one study found that people consume less when dish colors have a high contrast with the food color (causing a 22% reduction in serving size) and a high contrast with the tablecloth (causing a 10% reduction in serving size).[13] Another found that strawberry mousse was perceived as sweeter and more intense when served on a white versus a black plate.[14]

A Color for Every Context

It’d be silly to singularly promote or condemn certain colors in homes. The psychological effects of colors vary not only between cultures, but between individuals and with the type of activity being performed.

The key takeaway is that color schemes should remain flexible. One highly flexible way to play with different colors in a building interior is through color-changing LED lights, such as the Philips Hue Lighting System, which allows you to select various color schemes and effects through an App on a smart device such as an iPhone.

 


References

[1] Can color and noise influence man’s thermal comfort? Retrieved from:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140137708931596#preview

[2] Body temperature changes during the practice of gTum-mo Yoga. Retrieved from:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v295/n5846/abs/295234a0.html

[3] Tranquilizing effect of color reduces aggressive behavior and potential violence. Retrieved from:

http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/1979/pdf/1979-v08n04-p218.pdf

[4] Color and psychological functioning: the effect of red on performance attainment. Retrieved from:

http://www.psych.rochester.edu/people/elliot_andrew/assets/pdf/2007_ElliotMaierMollerFriedmanMeinhardt_Color.pdf

[5] Wkipedia: Color Psychology. Retrieved from:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_psychology#cite_note-AEP-14

[6] Effects of office interior color on workers’ mood and productivity. Retrieved from:

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/232444027_Effects_of_office_interior_color_on_workers%27_mood_and_productivity

[7] The effect of color on conscious and unconscious cognition. Retrieved from:

http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1079&context=hsshonors

[8] Individual differences in reactions toward color in simulated healthcare environments: the role of stimulus screening ability.

Doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.02.007

[9] Blue lights believed to prevent suicides, street crime. Retrieved from:

http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2008494010_bluelight11.html

[10] Blue or Red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Retrieved from:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/323/5918/1226.abstract

[11] Effects of color as an executional cue in advertising: they’re in the shade. Retrieved from:

http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/mnsc.43.10.1387

[12] Reinvent wheel? Blue room. Defusing a bomb? Red room. Retrieved from:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/science/06color.html?_r=0

[13] What’s with the color of your plate? Retrieved from:

http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/outreach/color_plate.html

[14] Is it the plate or is it the food? Assessing the influence of the color (black or white) and shape of the plate on the perception of the food placed on it.

doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2011.08.011

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