Q: Sometimes I worry that if I’m a bad mood, it’s hard to put on a “happy face” and still interact with others. Is there anything I can do?
A: There’s scientific evidence that certain colors can actually inhibit the recognition of sadness in faces, meaning that a sad face may not be quite as recognizable as sad when paired with certain colors. These same colors can be used to enhance a happy face.
- Previous research has shown colors are associated with various emotions.
- In our world, color is a way to convey information.
- Two colors are often associated with positive emotions: pink and green.
- But what happens when these colors are paired with faces that convey information – happiness or sadness? Do the colors change how the emotions are perceived?
- Two French researchers from the University of Poitiers published a study in the journal PLOS ONE in 2014 a study that examined this very question.
Experiment 1: Green, White, and Gray
The methods for both experiments in this study were very similar. The researchers basically paired faces – which had various emotional expressions – with colors to see whether the colors enhanced or inhibited people’s recognition of the emotions.
- 38 participants were recruited to be raters in this study.
- All were screened for color blindness to ensure they could see colors.
- The researchers then got a large number of faces to serve as stimuli.
- The faces were cut out so that clothing and hairstyle were cropped out – just an oval face with no other information.
- There were both male and female faces in their database.
- Each face had been digitally altered to express a range of emotions from neutral, happy, to sad, and even gradually morphed in-between these emotional expressions.
- In addition to faces, the researchers also got colored backgrounds to pair with the faces.
- In this study, the researchers compared pure green, mid-gray (50% lightness and 0% saturation), and white.
- The participants in this study sat at a consistent distance from a computer screen and had viewed the stimuli paired with the backgrounds (green, white, or gray).
- They were asked to choose as quickly as possible whether the face displayed an emotion, or if it was neutral.
- Finally, participants were asked what emotions they tended to associated with the colors.
- Green backgrounds helped the participants recognize the emotion in happy faces.
- Green backgrounds also kept the participants from recognizing sad faces as sad.
- In other words, green enhanced the happy faces, but caused the sad faces to seem less sad.
- Another surprise was that the researchers found the same effect for white. White enhanced happy faces and inhibited recognition of sad faces.
- Gray did not have the same effect.
- In other words, green and white both had the same positive effects on how emotions were perceived in faces.
Experiment 2 – Pink, White, and Gray
This study was done generally the same way with the same number of participants, only this time they replaced green with pink.
The pink they chose was pure magenta but lightened to the same degree as the green in the first study.
- Like in experiment 1, pink enhanced the recognition of happy faces but inhibited the recognition of sad faces.
- RESULTS OF COLOR RANKING:
- In BOTH experiments 1 and 2, participants ranked the colors based on which they liked the most.
- Gray was the least liked, followed by white, and then a tie for green and pink.
- Then participants were asked which colors were the most arousing – not necessarily sexually, but in terms of “waking you up.” White was judged to be the least arousing, followed by gray, then a tie for pink and green.
- Finally, participants were asked which colors were most attractive. Gray was the least attractive color, followed by white, pink, and then green.
- The results in this study were clear. Green, Pink, and White, being associated with positive emotions, had a tendency to enhance happy faces and inhibit the recognition of sad faces.
- White was the surprise – it also had the same effect. The researchers suggested that associations with “brightness” may have connected white to happiness.
- What does this mean for you? If you’re having a rough day, consider adding green or pink to your wardrobe. These colors will make your sad face seem… not quite so sad.
- If you want to enhance your natural cheeriness, green and pink are great for that, too.
Gil, S., & Le Bigot, L. (2014). Seeing live through positive-tinted glasses: Color-meaning associations. PLOS ONE, 9(8), 1-13. Link: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0104291