New research indicates that emotions change how we perceive color.
Specific colors and emotions have been linked for a long time — blue with sadness, green with envy, red with anger, and so on — but two studies have shown that our emotions actually affect the way we see the hues around us. When we’re down in the dumps, that feeling of sadness makes us less accurate at seeing colors, specifically on the blue-yellow axis.
In a press release, psychology researcher Christopher Thorstenson of the University of Rochester, said, “We were already deeply familiar with how often people use color terms to describe common phenomena, like mood, even when these concepts seem unrelated. We thought that maybe a reason these metaphors emerge was because there really was a connection between mood and perceiving colors in a different way.”
Indeed, the research, published in the journal Psychological Science, confirmed the study authors’ hunch. Both studies concluded that sad people are less able to perceive colors on the blue-yellow axis, but the red-green axis remains unaffected.
In one study, researchers played an emotion-inducing film clip for 127 participants, and then asked them to complete a visual judgment task. The participants were divided into two groups: one group watched a sad film clip, the other watched stand-up comedy. Both the sad and comedic film clips had been validated in previous studies, confirming that they produced the intended emotions for the participants in this study.
After watching the clips, the participants were shown 48 desaturated color patches and had to identify whether the patch was red, yellow, green, or blue. The participants who were experiencing feelings of sadness were less accurate at identifying colors than the people who were amused by the standup comedy. However, the difference only occurred for the colors on the blue-yellow axis, and there was no difference in accuracy for the red-green axis.
Similarly, the second study found that color perception was only impaired on the blue-yellow axis. In this study, instead of an amusing film clip, a portion of the 130 participants were shown a neutral clip. Again, the participants who watched the sad clip had distorted perceptions of the colors on the blue-yellow axis, but they were just as able to identify colors on the red-green axis as the group who watched the neutral clips.
Since both studies concluded that color perception was only impaired on the blue-yellow axis, the results cannot be explained by differences in the participants’ attention levels or engagement with the study task. These findings clearly indicate that sadness is responsible for the differences in color perception.
"We were surprised by how specific the effect was, that color was only impaired along the blue-yellow axis," says Thorstenson. "We did not predict this specific finding, although it might give us a clue to the reason for the effect in neurotransmitter functioning.”
Thorstenson notes that past research has linked color perception with the neurotransmitter dopamine, again, specifically on the blue-yellow axis. Dopamine is one of the key chemicals in the brain that affects happiness, so it makes sense that it would also play a role in these findings that associate color perception and mood.
If you’re “feeling blue” or having one of those days where the grass just looks greener on the other side, the science behind these common metaphors suggests that there’s more significance to the color-mood associations than previously thought.