Rosella Room mental health blog: Paint it black - or should that be blue?

Paint it black – or should that be blue?

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I’m intrigued by the notion that mental health conditions might influence colour preferences.  Is it true that those inclined towards melancholia prefer the colour blue? What about everybody else?

Recently, I came across an article written in 2008 by one of the founders of the Ig Nobel Prize, Marc Abrahams.  The article (part of the series on ‘improbable research’) suggests that, on the basis of a study conducted in 1931, people with schizophrenia and ‘manic depression’ particularly like the colour blue, with green coming in a close second (at least for men anyway).

Blue?  As we all know, blue is the colour commonly used to represent depression.

When I read into the subject, I found that over the last 20 years several studies have sought to ascertain the colour preferences of people with schizophrenia.  Results are inconsistent.

Both a 1988 and a 2004 study found no difference in colour preference between people with schizophrenia and healthy subjects.  A 2002 study found a prominent preference among people with schizophrenia for the colour green.  But a 1985 study revealed no preference for green.  And a 2012 study in China concluded people with schizophrenia were not so keen on green but quite liked brown and black.  (See here for details of these studies).

Why such different results?  One answer probably lies in differences in testing (eg. size of sample group, range of colours and shades, mental health conditions of subjects).  Or perhaps differences flow from the subjective, even personal, nature of colour perception.  I’d wager there were also cultural differences in colour preferences and how subjects interpreted colours.  (See here Lancaster University’s neuroscientist Aina Casaponsa and professor of linguistics Panos Athanasopoulos’ piece on how language and other cultural factors can influence colour perception.)

In the mental health context, colour preferences may be relevant to healing and rehabilitation.  Colours influence our mood, how we see ourselves, and how we view the future.  On a practical level, colour preference is relevant for hospital colour schemes (uniforms, furniture, walls, carpets) and even pharmaceutical packaging (to attract, rather than repel, a user).  Colour preferences are also important to how we perceive mental health conditions.  Ironically – given the level of general interest in the psychology of colour – no awareness-raising colours are attached to severe mental illnesses like psychosis.  See our previous post What colour is schizophrenia?

So on the basis of the above targeted studies, one might imagine that blue (or maybe green or brown or black) is the colour preferred by those with severe mental conditions.

But, complicating matters, two recent surveys suggest that blue – and green – are in fact the favourite colour of most people across the globe, regardless of their mental health.   A 2015 survey, conducted by private data company YouGov, comprised a series of surveys in ten countries (UK, Germany, US, Australia, China and Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia).   Blue was the preferred colour by a wide margin in all ten countries and across all age groups.  A 2017 survey of 30,000 people in 100 countries also revealed that blue, in a shade close to teal, was the most popular.

Is there any link between mental health and colour preference?  What should we make of the inconsistent findings in the earlier studies?  What’s your favourite colour?

Let us know your thoughts.

Image credit – photo by wang shuhong on Unsplash

3 comments

  1. Interesting issue! Have you seen the research that suggests a percentage of political preference is based on the strength of a person’s sense of disgust, which in turn is based on the number of I think bitter taste receptors in the mouth? We’re much more ‘bodied animals’ than we give ourselves credit for.

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  2. When a psychotic person expresses a colour preference, does he/she ever suggest that his/her preference has changed with the onset of the disease? No, I thought not. Harry

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