Seeing Red

The whole area connecting colours with mood and behaviour can be difficult to measure effectively scientifically. Certainly the kind of quantative outputs that scientists like – measurable, repeatable effects – can be frustratingly thin on the ground… so many of the effects are subtle and subjective, and stem from a range of factors that include personal life experiences, individual skin tones, and varying environmental cues. A shade of blue that makes your natural colouring look radiantly fantastic will make you feel uplifted and empowered when you wear it, though the same shade on me might have no impact or even a negative one… so how can we measure the effect of the colours we see, on how we feel, in an objective way?

Some attempts have recently been made by the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, New York, and extended and replicated by other researchers in France, to examine the effect of the colour red. Their experiments fascinatingly indicated that being shown the colour red made test participants’ muscles respond more strongly, in grip and pinch tests, and also the speed with which the muscles responded.

The experimental design was careful to equalise other factors (such as age and strength of participants) and isolate the specific impact of colour – red produced a measurably different response, compared to when participants were shown grey or blue stimulus which was adjusted to matched brightness and duration. The participants in each case were also unaware, and unable to guess, the purpose of the experiment they were taking part in.

So, why the interest in red, why would we respond differently to red compared to other hues?

For those of us in the developed world red has a number of cultural connotations associated with danger – red usually means a warning, to stop, or an alert of some kind. But the reasons our culture chose red for these symbols had to come from somewhere, and in nature we find that red also carries its own deeper significance: certainly for our well-being, seeing red might indicate bleeding, or fever, or externally it could be something dangerously hot to touch.

Successfully evolved higher/complex mammals (like us humans, believe it or not) are examples of good survival instincts. Those of us, in evolutionary terms, who survive long enough to breed, are those who are good at recognising and responding to danger. Therefore, natural signifiers of danger get encoded at the deep, reflexive levels, the basic way we respond to threats. Without even being consciously aware of it, science is now demonstrating, we respond to colour on an instinctive and automatic basis. This means we all need to be aware of colours in a functional way that goes beyond fashions and aesthetics, as well as perhaps being more open to those instinctive and inarticulate feelings about colours we are drawn to, or not.


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