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Whether Green With Envy Or Tickled Pink, We Live In A Color-Coded World

Nov 10, 2014
Originally published on November 10, 2014 11:00 am

Red means stop; green means go. You live in a red or a blue state. You feel green with envy, or you're tickled pink. Colors alert, provoke, attract, divide and unite us.

Thinkers from Plato to Einstein to a new cottage industry of color psychologists have studied the importance of color in our daily lives. But, as Joann and Arielle Eckstut write in their book The Secret Language of Color: "Anyone who claims to be an expert on color is a liar."

That said, Joann Eckstut says we do know some things. For one, our distant relatives rely on colors. "In the animal world, it's everything," Eckstut explains. "Color is what tells the male and the female who is the most attractive and who they're going to mate with."

But the human brain is bigger. We're influenced, not just by science, but by other people, says Arielle Eckstut. "There is the biological part that has a reaction to color, and then there's the cultural part of us that is influenced by what's directly around us, and then there's the individual," she says.

We all have personal preferences, but culture plays a big part in how we feel about a color. "In the Western part of the world, for example, where blue is universally the favorite color, you will see lots more blue in people's drawers than if you go to China, where reds and yellows are more highly valued than blues are," says Eckstut. "So that's a way in which the cultural context helps fuel what we like."

... Or what we don't like. In the movie Reservoir Dogs, the crime boss assigns color names to his team of thieves. Steve Buscemi's character does not want to be named Mr. Pink. (You can see that scene here, but note, it includes offensive language.)

With pink's checkered past, a thug could learn to love it. Before it was seen as a "girly" color, pink was gender neutral and commonly worn by men. When pink was chosen as the symbolic color of breast cancer, there was a feminist backlash. And when Chicago decided to make one of its subway lines pink, some scoffed. A writer for The Chicago Tribune said it was "strange" to have a pink line "in a city known for ... deep-dish pizza and Chicago Bear-loving beer guzzlers."

Ten years later, Chicago's pink line is like a social experiment in color. "Pink, it's a very Mexican color," says Samir Tamer, a pink-line regular. He points out that "the train is running through the Mexican neighborhoods." A spokesperson for the Chicago Transit Authority said she did not think that was intentional.

Pink line rider Larry McDonald likes it because it's cheerful. "It would be nice for all of the lines if it was brighter, I guess," says McDonald. "It would change the mood swing. Like music. What's the old saying? 'Music calms the savage beast'? I guess it's the same way with colors," he says.

Some prison officials thought pink might soothe convicts. One study showed pink had a calming effect on inmates, so jail cells were painted pink. But another study found prisoners didn't like being "pinked" and tried to scratch it off the walls with their fingernails.

Marketers spend all kinds of time and money trying to figure out the best color for their brands. It's believed that red stimulates your appetite, blue signifies creativity, and yellow — surprise — can cheer you up. Again, the science behind this research is fuzzy. But change the color of a popular brand, or even a medication, and people notice.

"A study was done on people who regularly took a particular pharmaceutical that was a particular color," says Arielle Eckstut. "And when they switched out the pill with these people and made it a different color, 53 percent of people stopped taking the pill even though it was important to their health."

Whether we're conscious of it or not, color codes our daily lives.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Steve, I have an important question for you.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Important question? Ask away, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What is your favorite color?

INSKEEP: Blue. Wait, that's an important question?

MONTAGNE: Bear with me. I have another question. Do different colors affect your mood?

INSKEEP: I'm seeing red right now.

MONTAGNE: Bear with me. I ask all of this because we are doing a deep dive into color all this week. There is a story behind those questions. The colors around us have a lot of influence. NPR's Elizabeth Blair explains.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Color shapes just about everything we do...

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

BLAIR: You got to go when the light turns green, bundle up when there's a Code Blue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, right now in Baltimore City, a Code Blue alert is in effect.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah. Emergency officials are kicking it into high gear as they monitor the diving temperatures and the...

BLAIR: Colors divide people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What's humorous is the red states are actually taking money from the blue states. We're the ones...

BLAIR: And unite them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yellow ribbons with the message free the hostages.

BLAIR: So why are colors so critical to our lives? It's a question that has been studied forever, by everyone from Plato to Einstein and more recently by a cottage industry of color psychologists. But as Joann and Arielle Eckstut the write in their book "The Secret Language Of Color," anyone who claims to be an expert on color is a liar. But Joann Eckstut says we do know some things. For example, our relatives rely on colors.

JOANN ECKSTUT: In the animal world, it's everything. Color is what tells the male and the female who is the most attractive and who they're going to mate with.

BLAIR: But we've got bigger brains that are influenced not just by science, but by other people, says Arielle.

ARIELLE ECKSTUT: There is the biological part of us that has reaction to color. And then there's the cultural part of us that is influenced by what's directly around us. And then there's the individual.

BLAIR: We all have personal preferences. But Eckstut says culture plays a big part in how we feel about color.

A. ECKSTUT: In the Western part of the world, for example, where blue is universally the favorite color, you will see lots more blue in people's drawers than if you go, let's say, to China, where reds and yellows are more highly valued than blues are. So that's a way in which the cultural context helps fuel what we like.

BLAIR: Or what we don't like.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RESERVOIR DOGS")

STEVE BUSCEMI: (As Mr. Pink) How about if I'm Mr. Purple? That sounds good to me. I'll be Mr. Purple.

LAWRENCE TIERNEY: (As Joe Cabot) You're not Mr. Purple. Some guy at some other job is Mr. Purple. You're Mr. Pink.

BLAIR: Pink's got a checkered past. Before it was seen as the ultimate girly color, pink was gender-neutral and commonly worn by men. When pink was chosen as the symbolic color of breast cancer, there was a feminist backlash. And when Chicago decided to make one of its subway lines pink, some scoffed. A writer for The Chicago Tribune said it was strange to have a Pink Line in a city known for deep-dish pizza and Chicago Bear-loving beer guzzlers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBWAY CAR)

BLAIR: But 10 years later, Chicago's Pink Line is like a social experiment in color.

SAMIR TAMER: Pink - it's a very Mexican color.

BLAIR: Pink Line regular Samir Tamer says it should be pink.

TAMER: The train is running through the Mexican neighborhoods.

BLAIR: A point that was lost on the Chicago Transit Authority. Pink Line rider Larry McDonald likes it because it's cheerful.

LARRY MCDONALD: It would be nice for all lines if it was brighter, I guess.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Why?

MCDONALD: I mean, you know, it would change the mood swing, like music. What's the old saying? Music calms the savage beast. So I guess the same way with color.

BLAIR: Prisons thought pink would soothe convicts. One study showed pink had a calming effect on inmates. So jail cells were painted pink. But another study found prisoners didn't like being pinked and tried to scratch it off the walls with their fingernails. Marketers spend all kinds of time and money trying to figure out the best color for their brands. It's believed red stimulates your appetite, blue signifies creativity and yellow - surprise - can cheer you up. Again the science behind this research is fuzzy, but change the color of a popular brand or even a medication, people notice. Arielle Eckstut.

A. ECKSTUT: A study was done on people who regularly took a particular pharmaceutical that was a particular color. And when they switched out the pill with these people and made it a different color, 53 percent of people stopped taking the pill even though it was important to their health.

BLAIR: Whether we're thinking about it consciously or not, says Eckstut, color has coded our lives. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.