How color can influence the way you think

Think of the world if we couldn’t perceive color. What would we interpret differently? How would our awareness change within this less vibrant atmosphere? How would our lives be transformed?

The fact is, while we might not realize it through our day-to-day lives, color is highly integrated in our ways of thinking, consciously and unconsciously. It affects us as consumers, as artists, as creative thinkers and as representatives of our culture.

Ravi Mehta, professor of business specializing in consumer behavior, “conducted a study”: in 2009 about how color influences our functioning in cognitive-related tasks.

“People have different associations with colors. When you think of red, what people … think about is danger, mistakes, things like those. And that makes (the people) more attentive,” he said. “But if I tell them to think about blue, people think about sky, openness, freedom. And that is what makes them feel a little safe where they can explore, take risks, and they become more creative.”

Based on these observations, Mehta had his test subjects perform a series of psychological tasks that were either attention-based (red) or creativity-based (blue). For example, subjects were asked to choose between two types of toothpaste: one that boasted cavity prevention (avoidance, red) or one that advertised teeth whitening (approach-oriented, blue).

The results showed that more people chose the first choice when it was paired with a red background, and the same happened for the second choice on a blue background. These conclusions, therefore, showed a correlation between cognitive decision-making and the colors red and blue.

But what happens when you stray away from a Western way of thinking? Mehta’s study was done in North America, and the results may not be relevant to all cultures. This Western way of thinking may not be pertinent to how the other half of the world perceives color.

“It is not clear what the underlying mechanism in the brain is, like what makes blue seem calming and soothing to us and what makes red arousing,” said Evelina Tapia, postdoctoral fellow in psychology. “But I also heard — and it was really bizarre — that in Italy, the blue color was very arousing to men, but very soothing to women, because supposedly the national soccer team in Italy is blue.”

According to a article, blue sugar pills tend to help put people to sleep in placebo sleeping pill trials. This color association is almost all-encompassing; it spans many cultures — except not in Italy, where blue is stimulating instead of relaxing.

“So the culture in which we live and the objects which are associated with specific colors can really influence our behavior,” Tapia said.

The fact that color association works through our psyche means that color is also a vast portion of the advertising business. Many companies have copyrights on certain colors in their advertisements, the most notable example being Pepsi’s special shade of blue.

“There is some amount of work that goes into (a company’s advertisement color choice) where people might do focus groups or testing,” said Brittany Duff, professor of advertising. “It’s extremely important, so they do spend time and money, but sometimes it could be as simple as just seeing what somebody likes or what’s different than other people.”

A company strives, above all, to stand out from their competitors. They want to be remembered, and one way to do this is not only through color but through strategy of color placement.

Last year, Duff published an article in the Journal of Advertising all about distractors in advertisements. Oftentimes, ads use color so excessively that the whole message gets lost in the patterns.

“That’s actually where you also see ads that use white space. So those Volkswagen Beetle ads that were iconic of the ’60s, they just had a picture of the car on a lot of white space,” she added. “It’s so different from everything else.”

The minimalist ads for 1960s-era VW gave color, or perhaps lack of color, a whole new meaning among the vivid ads of the time. In fact, they symbolized their own avant-garde art form of the decade.

“Color has always been important, but things do shift because of trends and fads,” said Patrick Hammie, professor of painting. “When you think of the ’70s, you have a very specific idea of those types of colors and those patterns, and the same thing is going to be said about us today, but we can’t see it because we’re doing it now.”

Not only is color signified differently depending on its place in history, but it also sets a tone for the period. For instance, the hues of the ’70s are thought to be vastly different than those of the ’20s and ’30s in the economic downturn.

“Whenever we romanticize the past, we typically see it through very neutral fibers. When you think of the Great Depression, it’s always grays and browns,” Hammie added.

A number of Hammie’s art pieces are currently displayed in the Krannert Art Museum as part of the faculty exhibition, set to end Sept. 23.

Hammie’s focus is “the figure and representation, and in particular, the nude figure.” He concentrates mainly on race and identity within his art, using color to represent flesh and skin tones. While he likes to emphasize the black male, he often integrates other races to underscore the differences and similarities of color through race.

“The traits that are associated with race are biologically real, so there is real variation of skin color,” said Mikhail Lyubansky, lecturer of psychology with a focus on race relations. “However, there is also real variation in hair color, and there is real variation in eye color, and we tend to not give those very much meaning … and the meaning that we give (skin) is the social construction.”

“The idea of black and white is rhetorical. They’re ideal — no one is white and no one is black,” Hammie said. “What happens to those people who are not so easily rhetorical in terms of those identifications? … What does that mean in terms of how we think about race through color?”

All in all, we can see that color engulfs our psyche, burrowing deep into the depths of our mind. Many times we don’t give too much thought to our subliminal processes, but now you know: The next time you decide to wear a blue shirt in Italy, be aware of the hidden social consequences.

Reema can be reached at [email protected]