Learning to See - Colour and Human Behaviour

Learning to See - Colour and Human Behaviour
  • 2023-24

A few years ago in the UK, there was a fierce political debate about the BBC news. The backdrop colour when anchormen were delivering the headlines was generally blue.

The colour of the Conservative party is blue, and it was claimed that the semiotics of the set would lead people to associate the ‘truth’ represented by BBC news with the colour blue, subconsciously allying that faith in blue with the Conservative party.

Since then, the BBC has mixed the colour palette of its news delivery, shifting the tones in their news bulletins to incorporate red (the colour of the Labour party) in order to appear more politically neutral. 

The idea of primary colours - blue, red, and yellow, with green, orange and purple as secondary colours emerged in the seventeenth century.

Isaac Newton developed the notion of a spectrum in his 1704 publication Opticks. With Newton’s theory, white and black were suddenly no longer colours – white being the spin of all colours, black being the absence of colour.

A rival theory was proposed by the German writer, Johann von Goethe, who thought that all colours were ‘degrees of darkness’. Though his science was discredited, it was Goethe who first conceived the idea of a ‘colour wheel’ and spoke of complementary colours.

What neither Newton nor Goethe could know is that beyond the scope of the human eye, the invisible spectrum continues into infra-red and ultra-violet.

Colour does not exist in the world. Our brains translate light into colour. To describe different colours you not only need an eye, you also need language.

In Ancient Greece, you might think that blue would be an important colour. And yet in the work of Homer, black is the most frequently-mentioned colour (170 times), followed by white (100), then red (13), with yellow and green earning less than ten references each. Astonishingly the colour blue is not mentioned once.

It is not that blue was absent in Ancient Greece. The Greeks just lacked words to describe it, preferring to emphasise the brightness of light or luminosity rather than chromaticism. It seems that if we don't possess the language for a colour, then it affects our perception of it.

That perception can be historical as well as visual. Until the nineteenth century it was believed all classical Greek and Roman buildings and statuary were white. It then emerged that these buildings and sculptures were most often painted in bright colours. These colours have eroded over the centuries to leave the pure white marble underneath. 

Pantone is the most obvious contemporary attempt to lock down colours into a systematic chart. There is a poetry in this pinning down and naming of colours in commercial swatches.

A recent poem by Harry Burke takes a traditionally romantic notion of sending his love a rose but subverts the gesture by reducing the flower to its Pantone code:

i sent bella a message
(she is the flower of the world)
of a rose
which I decided to colour yellow
not the yellow of ducklings...
but my own
r 255
g 255
b 0

Each colour has it champions. The modernist architect Le Corbusier wanted his buildings white, believing the colour to be spiritually cleansing. Henry Ford didn't mind what colour his cars were as long as they were black.

Coco Chanel inverted the fashion conventions for white and black, wearing white at funerals and for cocktails inventing the little black dress.

The language of black and white is well documented as constructing rather than reflecting racial prejudice. The easy cultural association of black with evil and white with good is present, for instance, in Westerns (with the colour of the horses) and even in musicals, in West Side Story, for example, the value of the characters encoded in the colour of the cars. 

One of the most recently created colours is Vantablack – a black so deep and dark – absorbing 99.965% of all light – that it flattens dimensions and looks for all the world like a void or hole.

Red is conventionally the colour of passion and hell. A 2012 research project revealed that waitresses wearing red were likely to see their tips from male customers increase by 26%.

Red is the colour of Ferrari, and the colour of the cape hung by a matador in fighting a bull - ironically because bulls are in fact colour-blind. A penalty-taker wearing a red jersey is, on average more likely to score, according to statistics, than someone sporting another colour.

Blue is the colour chosen by the UN to represent peace. It was favoured by Mark Zuckerberg when designing Facebook to promote a sense of community. It is the colour most associated with the figure of the Madonna. It is also the colour of most of my shirts!

In terms of religious iconography, Eve is usually depicted as blonde. The Virgin Mary is almost always represented as a brunette, so reinforcing the stereotypical association of blonde with more ostentatious sexuality. 

Pink has seen a recent revival with the popularity enjoyed by the Barbie film, although the pattern of blue for boy and pink for girl, which may seem like a long-standing cultural stereotype, only dates from the mid-twentieth century. There is little evidence of this custom beforehand.

When it comes to highlighters, 85% of sales are accounted for by pink and yellow. 

Colour can have a significant impact on human behaviour, too. One 1980s airline changed its interior colour scheme from yellow and brown to green and blue, and reported a 45% reduction in air sickness during flights.

Fast-food chains use bright, strong colours to make us eat quickly. Expensive restaurants encourage us to linger with low lights and softer colours.

Sodium vapour lights – the cheapest and most widely used in street-lighting – belong to the red spectrum and have often been implicated in pockets of urban violence, in particular sexual violence.

Its alternative, mercury vapour light, belongs to the blue spectrum and has a calming effect, but it is also much more expensive.

Next time you fly, you may notice that the richer districts of cities have more blue, mercury lighting.

And next time you’re in a supermarket, notice the colour coding of certain products. Breakfast cereals are mostly yellow. Chocolates tend to purple. Books sell more if the cover is blue.

eye with colours and rainbow

No doubt there is something innate and hard-wired in our responses to colours, but there is also a lot of cultural reinforcement involved. Advertisers spend an inordinate amount of time and money associating their brands with particular colours.

Students will experiment with colour in their lives – in their clothes, sometimes in their hair, and in the way they decorate their bedrooms.  

But it is also important that students learn how to see. They need to learn how to look and see not just the way the world as it seems, but to understand the world complete with all its persuasive coding of colours and manipulative branding.

Education is an invitation to see – and therefore think – differently, an invitation to recognise that we do not simply experience the world, we interpret it.

This requires a refined critical lens so that students might, for instance, see beyond surface colour to the racial, religious, commercial and political implications beneath, to understand who is responsible for making the world look this way, and why.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

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