How colour affects our mood and sensory evaluations

Numerous scientific studies which have shown how colour influences our mood, behaviour and purchasing. For example, it can mess with the way we experience our other senses, such as taste and flavour or even our music preferences.

Red for example consistently conveys sweetness irrespective of the product type.

A study of more than 5,300 people from around the globe demonstrated that red-coloured drinks were most likely to be regarded as the sweetest, irrespective of where the participants were based geographically.

Marie Wright, chief global flavourist at ADM Nutrition, a multinational food and drink processor, recalls a particular product test for a strawberry flavour the company had devised. Volunteers struggled to detect changes in sweetness as they tested the flavouring. But when Wright and her colleagues brightened the redness of the liquid rather than upping its sugar content, the participants began reporting it was tasting sweeter.

“We found that you can make something feel sweeter if it’s brighter coloured,” says Wright. “It’s just like a bright red apple: before you’ve bitten into it, you expect it to be sweeter.” She says that brightening the colour can trick the brain so much that it has allowed them to lower sugar levels in some recipes by 10-20%, although the results from these tests have not been published in any academic journals to date.

It’s important to be cautious around colours and nutrition, though – there is some evidence that colour can alter how we experience food, but not necessarily impact our consumption levels in the long term.

Charles Spence, a psychologist at the University of Oxford who studies how our senses interact with each other and author of a book on the science of eating, says much of the cross-modal influences between colour, flavour and mouthfeel come from ingrained social associations we build up during our daily lives. Most of these come from marketing and packaging, he says, but also from our experiences of foods we eat day to day.

One thing is clear: we do indeed eat with our eyes.

When we see an artificially coloured product, we confer assumptions and expectations before it gets anywhere near our mouths. We might expect a bright blue ice lolly, for example, to taste of raspberry because we’ve been trained to expect that from other ice lollies of that colour we have eaten.

And when chefs or food companies play with that automatic association, it can meddle with how we experience the food, says Spence.

If the blue ice lolly were to taste of orange, it would likely take longer to identify the flavour.  Whether it can alter the intensity of the flavour we experience is not entirely clear with some studies finding an effect, and others not.

Another study looked at how the colour of a wine bottle label influenced the way volunteers perceived the flavour of the red wine within: red and black labels, for example, made it more likely that they would describe the wine as ‘tangy’.

Strangely, colour can convey other types of sensual information too. Imagine an advert for a towel pops up on this page – immediately, the softness is palpable, almost as if you can feel it through the screen.

But that perceived plushness might not be down to high thread count you can see on the screen, it might be its pastel colour, at least according to the work of Atefeh Yazdanparast, an associate professor in the school of management at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“When I close my eyes, and think about softness, certain colours come to my mind – they’re usually lighter ones, light pink, light blue,” she says. “That was the question I had in my mind: what is the correspondence between our sense of vision and our sense of touch?” Put simply, could colours convey softness or hardness without hands-on experience?

So Yazdanparast and her colleague Seth Ketron, who studies consumer behaviour and sensory marketing at the University of North Texas, ran some tests. They asked volunteers to write down the colours they pictured when imagining softness and, sure enough, they mirrored her own, skewing towards pale shades. Then the pair asked volunteers to look at different colours, three at a time: each was at the same saturation, or intensity, but they varied from light to dark. When given adjectives to describe them, in 91.2% of the cases the lightest shade was selected as the softest.

Although their findings have yet to be published and are undergoing academic peer review as part of a larger scientific study, Yazdanparast cites similar work with Turkish and Lebanese volunteers that produced similar findings. Yazdanparast and Ketron studied American volunteers, so if their results stand up to scrutiny, it suggests that softness may be a structural association with lighter colours rather than a semantic, or linguistic, one. “The darker the colour we see, the more intense haptic sensation,” Yazdanparast says. In evolutionary terms it could be that darker colours served as some sort of warning to our ancestors, “priming them to be safe”, she speculates.

Yazdanparast’s broader work focuses on consumer decision-making, so she wanted to see how these findings might be leveraged outside the laboratory. Again, she and her colleagues devised a test, this time asking volunteers to look at products on a screen in pairs – each the same colour, but one much lighter in shade. Those products were deliberately items where haptics, or touch, might prove important in purchasing decisions – think towels, bedsheets, sofas.

“We noticed that yes, the colour lightness results in higher anticipated softness, which translates into higher purchase intention.” Volunteers were also willing to pay more for the objects they perceived as being softer.

What appears to be happening is that our brains are using colour as a visual signal to compensate for touch. And it is employed to great affect by those who want to sell us stuff – toilet roll, for example, is usually protected from our hands by plastic packaging in supermarkets, but is almost always a light pastel shade. Indeed, numerous studies have indicated that up to 90% of our initial product assessments are based on colour.

But while pale shades may suggest softness, colour intensity suggests quantity, according to Karen Schloss, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the world’s foremost colour researchers.

She has helped to devise the ecological valence theory for why er favour certain colours over others. She points to legends on data graphs, or maps: the colours chosen – more specifically, their intensity – might be intended to use that association to manipulate how you interpret that information.

“People infer that darker colours map to larger quantities, which has been used very well in most of the pandemic maps I’ve seen – more cases, or fatalities, represented with darker colours,” she says, citing her own work as well as that of others on how we’re behaviourally conditioned to make that link.

Associations like this can lead to problems, Schloss warns. If data is presented in a way that uses lighter colours for larger quantities, it can lead people to misunderstand what they are seeing. If a map comes up on a screen for a split second, “you’re going to interpret dark is more, not light is more”, even if that isn’t what the data really shows, she says.

But Schloss has also shown that colour can be used for good too – such as encouraging better civic behaviour. Her recent research has delved into the meanings we ascribe to colours. “We wanted to understand how people’s association with colour influences their expectations – so we could anticipate them, and design to match them, and so make it easier to interpret,” she says.

She and her colleagues used recycling bins as the basis of a particular experiment.

Imagine six such bins, identical in size and shape, but each earmarked for a different category with signs that read “glass”, “metal”, “compost” and so on. Schloss posited that changing the colour of a bin might subtly telegraph its purpose, helping to streamline behaviour and minimise mistakes in sorting.

When she and her team showed volunteers images of six differently coloured bins and asked to label them as they saw fit, a pattern emerged. Some colours were closely associated with a category: browns and yellows instantly suggested trash, for example.

Others, though, were more weakly associated: red, for instance, didn’t instantly evoke any category. There was, however, a slight preference to label red bins with “plastic” when asked to choose among the six.

The meaning of colour, then, is contextual, Schloss continues. A single white bin might obviously suggest paper, while a single red bin would mean little. Taken together, though, a series of six differently coloured trash cans can play off each other, and communicate far more, and more subtly.

Other studies have shown that colours can directly impact performance, especially among children.

When eight- and nine-years-olds conducted a series of tasks in the presence of different shades, academics found their overall performance was significantly worse around red versus grey which was used as a baseline.

And forget blue-sky thinking, try green-space thinking – at least if one study into creativity is credible, which showed a correlation between creativity among children and the presence of that colour, or objects of that colour such as plants.

And if you want a child to concentrate, you might consider painting a classroom in a vivid palette and so increase their reading scores.

All of which suggests the influence of colour is indeed very powerful.

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