Feeling Blue and Seeing Red: Links Between Color Perception and Emotion

published Sep 29, 2015
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(Image credit: Nicole Crowder)

We use color metaphors to express our emotions all the time. We feel blue, see red when we’re angry, turn green with envy, and others may call us “yellow” when we’re afraid or lacking in bravery. Are these metaphors just that—metaphorical—or do they have some basis in biology?

A piece recently published in Time Magazine focused on psychological research that suggests that humans’ color perception is actually influenced by their emotions. Christopher Thorstenson of the University of Rochester explained a set of experiments that were designed to test just how strongly emotions color the world around us, testing the color perception of individuals who had watched sad, happy, or neutral images and videos. According to Time,

The result: sad people had a hard time differentiating between shades along the blue-yellow color axis. Intriguingly, however, people who were sad did not have problems seeing colors in the red-green spectrum—possibly because of an evolutionary need to see red as an anger response, Thorstenson speculates.

Thorstenson notes that the responses can’t be reduced to questions of engagement levels or basic chemical arousal because this would have resulted in visual anomalies across the whole spectrum, not just with select hues. He concludes, “How we feel can really influence how we see the world around us.”

So what might this mean for design?

When we talk about color psychology in design, the conversation tends to focus on the effects of the colors: blue and green are calming, red is energizing, etc. But rarely do we talk about the emotions that we bring to a space. If you’re feeling sad, Thorstenson’s research suggests that blue rooms might just seem flat, gray, and dull. Colors that otherwise have a reputation for being calming might register blandly. Yellow—a color typically associated with happiness—might also fall short.

I’m not suggesting that we redo all our conclusions about color psychology, but this research does highlight the interesting fact that, as with many aspects of design, it’s important to listen to your own desires, feelings, and preferences. Your inner world has a direct effect on the way you experience the outer one, and any fulfilling home design should take that inner life into full account.