New research on the association between color and emotion is aiming to broaden the notion of “top-down” cognitive processing. Goldstein (2011) describes top-down processing as information processing that begins with a person’s “prior knowledge or expectations” (p. 52). This knowledge combines with information gained from the “stimulation of receptors by stimuli from the environment” (“bottom-up processing”) and forms our perception of any given situation (p. 50). A study from the University of Rochester in New York led by Christopher Thornstenson appears to show that feeling sad can inhibit our ability to perceive the color blue (Kaplan, 2015). Conversely, researchers from North Dakota State University report that individuals with hostile personalities show a preference for the color red over blue (Dobson, 2014). Both studies conclude that our moods and emotions can literally “color” our perception of our environment.
Intrigued by the frequency with which colors or color-based phrases (“feeling blue” or “seeing red”) are used to express one’s mood, Thorstenson and team decided to explore whether these metaphors reflected an actual connection between our moods and perceptions of color. Participants in their study were exposed to stimuli intended to induce feelings of sadness, cheerfulness, or impartiality. The “impartial” group was shown a neutral screensaver while the “cheerful” group watched a stand-up comedy routine. Participants in the “sad” group were shown the scene from Disney’s The Lion King in which Mufasa is killed and Simba tearfully tries to wake him. The scene has been scientifically proven in numerous psychological studies to induce feelings of sadness (Kaplan, 2015).
After viewing their respective clips each group was shown color swatches that were so washed out, they appeared nearly grey. Neither the “neutral” nor “cheerful” groups had any issues discerning different colors in the swatches. The “sad” group, however, had difficulty distinguishing colors on the blue-yellow axis. (The eye’s color encoding matrix has two axes: red-green and blue-yellow. The eye ranks light and sorts it into what we perceive as colors.) The significance, according to Kaplan, is that “only blue-yellow perception was affected, and only among the sad group”(2015). Thornstenson cites the belief of many psychologists that the blue-yellow axis is linked to dopamine, “a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers” (Psychology Today, n.d.). Thus, findings of his study suggest that sadness affects dopamine’s ability to transmit visual information about blue and yellow light (Kaplan, 2015).
Participants in North Dakota State University’s study were given personality tests to determine where they ranked for hostility. They were then given a test similar to Thornstenson’s where they needed to identify colors on washed-out swatches or images that were neither fully blue nor red. Those with hostile personalities were much more likely to see the color red and, of those who saw red, were more likely to inflict harm on others when presented with imaginary situations. Researchers for the study attribute the connection to an evolutionary need to identify danger – an association they say is shared across all cultures. From facial flushing to wounds and blood, the color red signals hostility and potential danger. Scientists in the study conclude that, “colour can convey psychological meaning and, therefore, is not merely a matter of aesthetics” (Dobson, 2014).
The idea of top-down processing is still under debate. In a recent study from Yale, authors Firestone and Scholl (2015) assert that, “none of these hundreds of studies – either individually or collectively – provide compelling evidence for true top-down effects on perception”. Thornstenson, however, remains convinced, saying, “Our results show that mood and emotion can affect how we see the world around us” (Kaplan, 2015). In any case, these studies showcase the complex and perhaps subjective ways in which we experience our world.
Dobson, R. (2014, March 16). Seeing red: It’s not just an expression for angry people, but also scientific fact. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/seeing-red-its-not-just-an- expression-for-angry-people-but-also-scientific-fact-9194815.html
Firestone, C., & Scholl, B. J. (accepted target article for peer commentary). Cognition does not affect perception: Evaluating the evidence for ‘top-down’ effects. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Yale University. Retrieved from http://www.yale.edu/perception/Brian/bjs-pubs.html
Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Kaplan, S. (2015, September 12). Blue moods may be connected to our perception of the colour. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/12/moods-affect-colour- blue-perception
Psychology Today. (n.d.) What is Dopamine? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/dopamine