How Color Shapes Our Lives

The social, historical, and evolutionary signals of colors. Plus, a video that shows how Newton arbitrarily named the colors of the rainbow.
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Jay Neitz has cured colorblindness. At least he thinks he could cure colorblindness, if the FDA would let him operate on humans. What Neitz, a vision expert at the University of Washington, has done for sure is given monkeys the ability to see red.

Like most mammals, squirrel monkeys have only two types of cone cells in their eyes—blue and green—and can, therefore, only see those colors. But by doing some genetic kung fu, Neitz, along with his lab partner (and wife), the neuroscientist Maureen Neitz, was able to convert some of the monkeys’ green cones to red, giving them the same trichromatic vision that humans have.

Well, most humans. Squirrel monkeys in nature actually see things more or less the same way humans who are red-green colorblind do. “People that are red-green color blind have only 1 percent of the color vision a normal person has,” Neitz says, “which is a heck of a lot closer to having none than to what everyone else has.” Neitz believes his technique could give the estimated 10 percent of American men who are red-green colorblind the ability to see like the rest of us.

But even if color restoration surgery was to become as affordable and commonplace as, say, a laser eye procedure, Andrew Lavigne wouldn’t be interested.  “[The color blindness] is part of what makes me, me,” says Lavigne, a New York-based graphic artist who is colorblind. “I don’t want to pay to chip away at my personality.” Color, for Lavigne, is not integral to the human experience. Sure, he grew up having to read the labels on crayons to make sure he was coloring with Fern and not Scarlet, and he still wears lots of black and gray so he doesn’t have to worry about making funny clothing choices, but it’s not like his world is somehow drained of meaning.  

Humans make all sorts of color choices, every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our mind. 

Though our world is awash in colors, valid empirical research on how color affects the human mind and behavior has, until recently, been severely limited. Perhaps it is because color seems frivolous—surface level, just icing on the cake. Or perhaps it is because for years scientists thought color best left to the poets. Either way, as a result, the “science” of color has ended up just above phrenology and parapsychology in the barrel of debunked pseudosciences.

But a trend has emerged in the field of behavioral science that has researchers beginning to take color seriously. Cognitive psychology posits a dual system of the mind, explains Jerald Kralik, assistant professor of psychology and brain sciences at Dartmouth University. In the first, there’s a quick response that happens in the lower levels of the mind—our gut reactions, so to speak—and then there is the second, more deliberative, thoughtful thinking that happens on top of that. Influences like color work their effects on us, “to the extent that even our highest-level cognition and intelligence are biased by these low level impressions,” Kralik says.

Pink Is For Girls

In the late 1970’s, a researcher up in Tacoma, Washington named Alexander Schauss began testing the behavioral effects of colors. Using himself as a subject, he found that a certain shade of pink could cause a loss of muscle strength and a slowed heart rate. Schauss then convinced the directors of a local Navy prison to paint some of their confinement cells the pink color. Of 153 male subjects tested in the study, 98.7 percent were weaker after only 15 minutes of confinement in the cells painted Baker-Miller pink (named after the two prison directors).

There’s no evidence that this is some innate animal response to the color pink; it is much more likely to be driven by social associations. “When burly men are exposed to the color pink, they’re primed to think of the concepts that we associate with pinkness,” says Adam Alter, a professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, and author of the book Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape Our Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors. It’s also a fairly new behavioral response. “It’s a pity we can’t go back in time to run the study in the 1800’s,” says Alter, “because we’ve only recently come to associate pink with weakness.”

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that pink became a “girly color.” Historian Jo Paoletti, in her book Pink and Blue:  Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, uncovered a 1927 article in Time accompanied by a chart showing that the top U.S. department stores (including Filene’s and Best & Co.) were telling parents to dress boys in pink. But once marketers made the decision to switch, it had a lasting impact. Just run a Google image search for “baby boy” and then one for “baby girl” and compare. Differences in the brains of boys and girls are learned and it is this type of social conditioning that leads us to internalize gender roles. As we age, they don’t go away; when surrounded by pink, men who grew up in blue feel their gender identity threatened, and their behaviors are modified by the environmental color, whether they notice it or not.

 

Why We See Red

Sophomore year of high school, a small group of like-minded friends and I formed a “philosophy club,” mostly meant as a middle finger to our politically and socially conservative private high school. We met at a McDonald’s by the side of the Garden State Parkway and followed typically unsophisticated lines of inquiry into the meaning of life.

At our first meeting, the only question to really gain any traction was about color. I pointed to the bright red and yellow wrapping of my Big N’ Tasty (since cut from the menu) and asked, “How do I know what we call ‘red’ looks the same to us all?” After all, we’ve agreed to call the color of the sky “blue” and the color of blood “red,” no matter what our individual experience of each is. And why do encounters with these colors, on one level such a personal and individual experience, tend to create such universal emotional responses?

Red is a good place to start, because of all the colors in the visible spectrum, it may have the strongest hold on the human mind. It was the first color to be used in artistic representation: By grinding ochre, a clay colored red by iron oxide, our Stone Age ancestors were able to add a deep brownish-red—not far from the color of blood—to the paintings in their cave dwellings.

Fast forward 400,000 years and now we send red roses and Valentine’s cards, put on red lipstick and skirts, and go to red light districts when the former strategies don’t work out. A University of Rochester team, led by professor of psychology Andrew Elliot and psychology graduate student Adam Pazda, has worked on a series of studies that have shown that women dressed in red are more attractive to men than women dressed in any other color. Of course, it would be one thing if these results were culturally or geographically bound, but it turns out that the “come hitherness” of red cuts across peoples: In a 2012 study, Elliot and Pazda found that the red was equally powerful as an attractant in Burkina Faso—where the color actually carries explicitly negative connotations—as it is in the U.S. The discovery led the team to conclude that red “may operate as a lingua franca in the human mating game.”

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Elijah Wolfson is the editorial director of Medical Daily and International Science Times. He is also a Langeloth Health Journalism Fellow at the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime, and Justice.

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