An Introduction to Color Perception
What is your favorite color? Do you like that same color for all items? You may want bright red for a sports car, but would that same color be acceptable for your house?
We give little thought about it, but the colors that we see can impact our thoughts and our behaviors. This includes things like the food we eat (would you eat a black orange?) to how we behave in the presence of colored lights (is that an ambulance behind me?), to which clothes we choose to wear (am I going to a professional meeting or on a romantic date?). What is it about color that affects our choices?
There has been significant research on how color affects our emotions (e.g. [1, 2]). Understanding how we interpret colors along scales such as positive or negative, warm or cool has been done to comprehend how color make us feel in certain situations. For example, understanding how colors make us feel in shopping/retail/restaurant environments has been an area of interest for marketing groups to encourage appetite or to help customers feel relaxed .
While these results offer great insight, it’s helpful to have a background from which to understand how these findings arise. Below, we will explain color perception and show how it influences our emotions in sometimes unexpected ways.
Visible Light and Color Perception
Our ability to see color depends on the wavelength of light. The light wavelengths that are in the visible spectrum for humans ranges from 400-700nm (See Figure 1.). There are many wavelengths that our eyes cannot see, like X-rays or radio waves.
Figure 1. Image depicting visible light wavelengths.
The wavelengths of light that we can see are absorbed by cells (known as photoreceptors) in the back of the eye. The photoreceptors that are sensitive to color and bright light are called cone cells, whereas the photoreceptors which are not sensitive to color and work better in low light conditions are called rod cells.
Color and Behavior
Color vision is an entire area of scientific study within the realm of vision science; whereas, examining how color influences us and how we use color to display our internal state is of interest to psychology.
We not only aesthetically enjoy a rich tapestry of color, but we also assign a variety of emotions to specific colors as well. Researchers from the University of Georgia studied college students for their color preferences, finding a wide range of predilections with differing justifications .
Various colors have even been used in order to try and affect the behavior of those who view it. For example, prisons have used Baker-Miller pink (No relation to the author of this blog; See Figure 2) on the walls as a method of abating aggression among inmates .
Researchers [4, 5] have also reported the color pink actually inhibits muscular strength and aggression in prison populations. Interestingly, some authors have criticized this finding as colors on the pink-end tend to be associated with red or orange which are often viewed as a bold, arousing colors and not traditionally associated with having a calming effect .
Other studies using the pink color in jail cells only found a reduction in aggressive behavior in the first few months of its use, and aggression increased over time . There has been recent work that has called into question the usefulness of pink when implemented in prisons .
Figure 2. Example of the color “Baker-Miller Pink”.
Outside of prison populations, color is used and studied to understand how it can influence those around the wearer. Red is often viewed as a sign of dominance in primates, while the same color can be viewed as a warning in other contexts . Research has suggested that men are rated as more aggressive and more dominant when in pictured in red clothes versus grey or blue .
Interestingly, there is research that suggests athletes who are wearing red have an advantage in sporting outcomes due to the color of their uniforms alone .
We tend to wear blues, blacks and greys for business affairs while more vibrant colors can be used in other social situations. Several experiments by Elliot and Niesta  demonstrated that men rate women in red to be more attractive. Another example is a study by Guéguen and Jacob  where men tipped waitresses more if they were wearing the color red.
Food Color and Perception
For several decades, food color has been studied to understand how people associate certain foods with color and whether people will buy food based on color .
Some examples of where colors violated what people expected for their food include clear cola or purple/green ketchup. These food alterations were widely considered failures and the products are no longer sold.
Researchers have found that food color is a powerful indicator of flavor association. In fact, certain foods are affiliated with a color and research has indicated that when beverage color and flavor are incongruent; often, people will misidentify the flavor to match the color .
There has also been consistent results regarding the addition of red coloring to foods and people’s rating the food or beverages as being sweeter the redder it appears (e.g. [14, 15]).
Color is all around us and may be used to influence how we feel, encourage specific behaviors, act as a social indicator or help identify foods and flavor. Understanding how color or other external stimuli affect us is important to study which can lead to greater insights into human behavior. iMotions software platform can allow researchers to objectively assess how various visual images and colors affect human performance. If you’d like to learn more about human behavior – both how it’s influenced and how it can be measured – download our free guide below:
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