Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Red is the color of....

I ran across an interesting blog today. Jeff Yurek writes a blog called "dot color". If you like my blog, you will like his. It's good stuff.
Jeff's blog

I found his blog because he wrote a blog post about one of my blog posts. Jeff, you have become my instant buddy. (Please take note of this, any of you who wish to become my buddy! I can be had that cheap.)

As I read through his posts (all very interesting), I came across one post that got me thinking. The blog was about the psychological effect of colors, specifically about whether color can have an effect on our buying habits. We would all like to think that we are ultimately in charge of whether we open up our wallet, but maybe the subconscious brain reacts emotionally to colors and clouds our thinking. I like this idea because it is such a good excuse for me to give to my wife when I return from a business trip. Any rationalization that keeps me for accepting responsibility for my bad behavior is a good thing.

Jeff's blog pointed out one bit of research that showed that red is an auspicious color for Olympic wrestlers. Similar research showed that a red background is a good thing for eBay auctioneers as well. People bid higher when there is a red background. Paradoxically, a red background will also lead people to try to negotiate better prices.
Number 316 is clearly excited about bidding because his hair is red

Jeff explains the paradox this way:
"Why? The exact mechanism remains a mystery but researchers see some evidence that aggressive colors like red may actually cause a spike in testosterone levels."

This all got me thinking. There are a lot of designers who will tell you how to use color to manipulate mood. Should I put all this advice into the same bucket where I store advice from palm readers, astrologists, political candidates, and psychotherapist who seem to have this psychological need to make me into a better person? Or is there some science behind the effect of color on mood?  If there is a general consensus on the effect of colors, then perhaps there is some underlying psycho-physical basis.

To answer this, I looked at three books for designers and three websites (see list at the end). Do they basically agree on the psychological effect of seeing red?

"Reds are bright and warm, cheerful and inviting." (Kobayashu)

"Red is passionate, the color of hearts and flames; it attracts our attention, and actually speeds up the body's metabolism." (Chijiiwa)

"[If red is your color] you crave excitement and live for the moment. Easily bored, you also enjoy having the power to get things done quickly. Red lovers are passionate about life." (Sutton and Whelan)

True Red was chosen as the 2002 Pantone color of the year. They had this to say about red in their press release: "This red is a deep shade and is a meaningful and patriotic hue. Red is known as a color of power and/or passion and is thus associated with love."

And here are the comments from from color consultant Kate Smith:
"Recognized as a stimulant, red is inherently exciting and the amount of red is directly related to the level of energy perceived. Red draws attention and a keen use of red as an accent can immediately focus attention on a particular element.
Increases enthusiasm
Stimulates energy and can increase the blood pressure, respiration, heartbeat, and pulse rate
Encourages action and confidence
Provides a sense of protection from fears and anxiety" (Smith)
Kate Smith, not to be confused with Kate Smith

Kate, incidentally, has an active blog on color with 1.32 zillion posts.

Here is what another color consultant, Angela Wright, has to say about red:
"Physical, Positive: Physical courage, strength, warmth, energy, basic survival, 'fight or flight', stimulation, masculinity, excitement. Negative: Defiance, aggression, visual impact, strain." (Wright)

Angela Wright, not to be confused with Angela Cartwright

Do these descriptions of the effect of red all agree? 

One could easily just read through them and say, "yeah, they match". This is a bit problematic though, because of the Forer effect. Bertram Forer was a psychologist who gave his students a personality test, and then handed each one a sheet of paper allegedly being a description of their personality. The students overwhelmingly felt that the descriptions fit them. Unbeknownst to the students, however, each one received the same evaluation, which was a compilation of vague statements from horoscopes. So, it could be that the descriptions of red sound harmonious because they are vague and general enough to sound like they agree.

My opinions on astrology are colored by the fact that I am a Scorpio,
and scorpios don't believe in astrology

Here is a simple test, though, that might even be considered somewhat objective, provided you are not being terribly critical, and have low standards for scientific, un-peer-reviewed research. And provided you are cool with my scientific process of selection of these six references as random, uncorrelated, and authoritative. And, of course, if you are not particularly demanding about doing actual science.

The original premise from Jeff's blog was that red revs people up. How about we look through the descriptions for phrases that say red excites, and phrases that say that red mellows. Scanning through the descriptions of red, I find the following words or phrases that are consonant with revving up:
"passion or passionate" (three times)
"speeds up metabolism"
"exciting or excitement" (three times)
"energy" (three times)
"fight or flight"
"stimulant or stimulation" (twice)
"increase bodily functions"
"encourages action"

I see no words that suggest that red will mellow one out. 

This research is incomplete. Ideally, I would identify three or four dimensions (like exciting/relaxing, happy/sad, and fattening/slimming) that colors can be described in. Each color would be given a position in this three or four dimensional space, as well as a tolerance range. If the tolerance ranges overlap a lot, then this is all mumbo-jumbo. If not, then there might be something to the idea that colors elicit emotions.

In an ideal world, of course, the National Institute of Giving Money to Brilliant Applied Mathematicians would knock on my door and give me an embarrassing amount of cash to research this question that is absolutely vital to sustaining our economy. And I would work hard to sustain the economy by throwing elaborate gala events for a hundred or so of my favorite color consultants.

Until I get that know on my door, the tentative conclusion is that red is a color that revs people up. Or, maybe I should say that, based on this research, I can't reject the hypothesis that people believe that the color red revs people up.

-------------  References ---------------
Shigenobu Kobayashi, A Book of Colors, 1987, Nippon Color 
Hideaki Chijiiwa, Color Harmony, a Guide to Creative Color Combinations, 1987, Rockport Publishers
Tina Sutton and Bride M. Whelan, Complete Color Harmony, 2004, Rockport Publishers
Angela Wright, Colour Affects website


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