The power of color on perception
Of the countless things that most, if not all, soon-to-be wives preoccupy themselves with, nothing is more confounding to me than the amount of time and energy they spend picking a color motif for their weddings.
I recall a joke about a groom being consulted by his bride about peach being their wedding motif, with the groom replying, "But isn't peach a fruit?" The variations are seemingly endless, and this is part of the commitment that most brides make to begin a new chapter in their entwined lives with their partners. But brides do this not because they have a unique and special kinship with the color wheel. It's because colors mean something to all of us, so we paint our lives with it.
While all of us may differ on how much importance we place on color, we all know it's important. Why?
The most basic reason is because color is a sign of life. We have evolved recognizing that colors are generally a sign that life or the conditions for it are abuzz. Red is the color of blood, bright blue is the color of sunny skies, and green is the sign that plants are able to do their photosynthetic jobs. I always associate orange with beverages, so generally, when I see anything orange (including any of its hues), even if it is a pencil or a ball, I feel thirsty. And indeed, orange is the designer's choice for the color of restaurants.
There is a bird in the Galapagos called the great frigatebird. During breeding season, the males have a red chest that inflates and attracts the females. When we visited those islands many years ago, my husband wore a red shirt which reliably drew the female great frigatebirds to him. He said he has never felt that "hot" with human females. Wearing red has been shown to increase perceptions of attractiveness between heterosexual couples – something that did not really hold for my late husband and myself as I do not like wearing red. But nonetheless, while different colors mean or signal different things to different species and different humans, color is part of survival.
But beyond the fundamental role that colors play in biological life, what do we know so far about how colors affect human behavior? If the traffic light color for "stop" was peach, would we be more or less compelled to stop? While traffic lights are just suggestions in many places around the world, red is still largely the color of choice to alert us to do something, or to stop doing something. And red, indeed, has been shown to stand out among other colors when it comes to getting human attention – red uniforms in sports competitions seem to make for better performance or perceived performance.
But this same red is also the suspect color that causes us to view ourselves or others as more aggressive. When people were asked to view red before an intelligence task, they performed less than those who viewed a neutral gray color. But it is blue that has been shown to make us more alert and perform better on attention tasks. When used in stores, blue seems to increase the perceived quality and trustworthiness of the brand. This summary shows these findings I just mentioned, and which parts of the brain were activated upon these "colored" encounters.
And it's not just red and blue. Other colors are also implicated in many kinds of human behavior. But there is no equivalent of the bible in the world of humans and color; the effect of color on humans are not dogmatic. So far, research has shown that age, gender, hue, saturation, light sources, adjacent colors, context, and cultural factors all join the color in question to influence human behavior.
This complex truth about colors stands out in certain stories of human lives, and in particular, our stories of joy. Ingrid Fetell Lee gave a TED Talk about what this intangible feeling looks like in the physical world, or in the spaces that we find or make for ourselves. In other words, what is the color of joy? She found that encounters that universally give us these unexpected bursts of inner "yeah!" have color. They are not gray. They are also diverse. They come in a mix of colors, in an interplay. They are also "multi" – she gave an example of how one confetto does not signal anything, but confetti does. It made me think of how seeing one balloon feels distinctly different from seeing many baloons being released at the same time to the infinite skies. At the end of her talk, she had a deeper realization: If we know that it is more or less color in these configurations of multiplicity and diversity that universally give us joy, then why do we design our cities, buildings, schools, hospitals, and government centers the way we mostly do? It made me think that maybe it is also intrinsic in humans to make it harder for ourselves and others to find joy in everyday things.
But color does not only give us joy. It can also give us peace and order. This is what the story of Edi Rama, the former mayor of Tirana in Albania, proved. He is also an artist, so he was familiar and armed with the power of aesthetics to transform human lives. In essence, he simply transformed what was largely a gray, drab, despondent town to a colorful living space, and its citizenry largely transformed how they lived and behaved toward each other and their town. Criminal behavior went down. Littering went down. Even corruption went down. It struck me especially when he said to the effect that beauty did what the police could not do.
To view color as simply a trick of the eye or the mind is to miss the essence of what makes us human and alive: nuances and differentiation. Even red becomes redder – or at least more striking to me – against a gray background. Color is not just a wedding motif. Humans have 6 to 7 million cones in their eyes that are sensitive to color. Who we are and how we behave relies greatly on what we see.
So to grooms: yes, peach is a fruit, but there is a reason why your bride wants to count on it to grace your entourage in its many shades. If you still don't get it, ask your bride at your own risk. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.