Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/August 1900/The Psychology of Red I



AMONG all colors, the most poignantly emotional tone undoubtedly belongs to red. The ancient observation concerning the resemblance of scarlet to the notes of a trumpet has often been repeated, though it was probably unknown to the young Japanese lady who, on hearing a boy sing in a fine contralto voice, exclaimed: "That boy's voice is red." On the one hand, red is the color that idiots most easily learn to recognize; on the other hand, Kirchhoff, the chemist, called it the most aristocratic of colors; Pouchet, the zoologist, was inclined to think that it was a color apart, not to be paralleled with any other chromatic sensation, and recalled that the retinal pigment is red; Laycock, the physician, confessed that he preferred the gorgeous red tints of an autumn sunset to either musical sounds or gustatory flavors. Artists more cautious than men of science in expressing such a preference—knowing that a color possesses its special virtue in relation to other colors, and that all are of infinite variety—yet easily reveal, one may often note, a predilection for red by introducing it into scenes where it is not naturally obvious, whether we turn to a great landscape painter like Constable or to a great figure painter like Rubens, who, with the development of his genius, displayed even greater daring in the introduction of red pigments into his work.

In all parts of the world red is symbolical of joyous emotion. Often, either alone or in association with yellow, occasionally with green, it is the fortunate or sacred color. In lauds so far apart as France and Madagascar scarlet garments were at one time the exclusive privilege of the royal family. A great many different colors are symbolical of mourning in various parts of the world; white, gray, yellow, brown, blue, violet, black can be so used, but, so far as I am aware, red never. Everywhere we find, again, that red pigments and dyes, and especially red ochre, are apparently the first to be used at the beginning of civilization, and that they usually continue to be preferred even after other colors are introduced. There is indeed one quarter of the globe where the allied color of yellow, which often elsewhere is the favorite after red, may be said to come first. In a region of which the Malay peninsula is the center and which includes a large part of China. Burmah and the lower coast of India, yellow is the sacred and preferred color, but this is the only large district which presents us with any exception to the general rule, among either higher or lower races, and since yellow falls into the same group as red, and belongs to a neighboring part of the spectrum, even this phenomenon can scarcely be said to clash seriously with the general uniformity.[1]

If we turn to Australia, whither the anthropologist often turns in order to explore some of the most primitive and undisturbed data of early human culture still available for study, we find the preference for red very well marked. In times of rejoicing the tribes at Port Mackay, Curr remarked, paint themselves red; in times of mourning, white. In describing the paintings and rock carvings of the Australians, Mathews states that red, white, black and occasionally yellow pigments were used, precisely the four pigments which Karl von den Steinen found in use in Central Brazil. Prof. Baldwin Spencer and Mr. Gillen, in their valuable work on the natives of Central Australia, have pointed out the significance and importance of red ochre. One of the most striking and characteristic features, they say, of Central Australians' implements and weapons is the coating of red ochre with which the native covers everything except his spear and spear-thrower. The hair is greased and red-ochred, and red ochre is the most striking feature in decoration generally. For ages past the Australian native has been accustomed to rub this substance regularly over his most sacred objects, and then over ordinary objects.

There is, however, no need to go so far afield in order to illustrate the primitive use of red ochre. Our own European ancestors followed exactly the same methods, and the German woman of early ages used red and yellow ochre to adorn her face and body, while the finds of the ice age at Schussenquelle, described by Praas, included a brilliant red paste (oxide of iron with reindeer fat) evidently intended for purposes of adornment. Moreover, the early artists of classic times had precisely the same predilections in color as the aboriginal Australian artists. Red, white, black and yellow are the dominant colors in the Iliad, and Pliny mentions that the most ancient pictures were painted in various reds, while at a later date red and yellow predominated. He also mentions that yellow was the favorite color of women for garments, and was specially used at marriages, while red being a sacred color and apt to provoke joy, was used at popular festivals, in the form of minium and cinnabar, to smear the statutes of Jupiter.

This well-nigh universal recognition of the peculiarly intense emotional tone of red is reflected in language. The color words of civilized and uncivilized peoples have been investigated with interesting and on the whole remarkably harmonious results. It is only necessary here to refer to them briefly in so far as they are related to our present subject. It seems that in every country the words for the colors at the red end of the spectrum are of earlier appearance, more definite and more numerous, than for those at the violet end. On the Niger it appears that there are only three color words, red, white and black, and everything that is not white or black is called red. The careful investigation of the natives of Torres Straits and New Guinea by Dr. W. IT. R. Rivers, of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition, has shown that at Murray Island, Mabuiag and Kiwai there were definite names for red, less definite for yellow, still less so for green, while any definite name for blue could not be found. In this way as we pass from the colors of long wave-length towards those of short wave-length we find the color nomenclature becoming regularly less definite. In Kiwai and Murray Island the same word was applied to blue and black, and at Mabuiag there was a word (for sea-color) which could be applied either to blue or green, while Australian natives from Fitzroy River seemed limited to words for red, white and black. In a neighboring region of Northern Queensland Dr. Walter Roth has reached almost identical results, the tribes having distinct names for red and yellow, as applied to ochre, while blue is confounded in nomenclature with black. In Brazil, again, while all tribes use separate words for red, yellow, white and black, only one had a word for blue and green. Even so æsthetic a people as the Japanese have no general words for either blue or green, and apply the same color word to a green tree and the unclouded sky.

Here again we may trace similar phenomena in Europe; the same greater primitiveness, precision and copiousness of the color vocabulary at the long wave end of the spectrum are found among Europeans as well as among the lowest savages. The vagueness of the Greek color vocabulary, especially at the violet end of the spectrum, has led to much controversy. Latin was especially rich in synonyms for red and yellow, very poor in synonyms for green and blue. The Latin tongue had even to borrow a word for blue from Teutonic speech; caeruleus originally meant dark. Even in the second century A. D. Aulus Gellius, who knew seven synonyms for red and yellow, scarcely mentions green and blue. Magnus has pointed out that a preference for the colors at the violet end of the spectrum coincided with the spread of Christianity, to which we owe it, he believes, that yellow ceased to be popular and was treated with opprobrium.[2] Modern English bears witness that our ancestors, like the Homeric poets, resembled the Australian aborigines in identifying the color of the short wave end of the spectrum with entire absence of color, for 'blue' and 'black' appear to be etymologically the same word.

At this point we come across an interesting and once warmly debated question. It was maintained some twenty years ago by writers who had been impressed by the defectiveness of the color vocabulary at the short wave-length end of the spectrum, that primitive man generally, and early Hellenic man in particular, were insensitive to the colors at that end of the spectrum, and unable to distinguish them. On investigation of individuals belonging to savage races it appeared, however, that no marked inferiority in color discrimination could be demonstrated. Hence it became clear that the vague and defective vocabulary for blue and green must be due to some other cause than vague and defective perception, and that sensation and nomenclature were not sufficiently parallel to enable us to argue from one to the other.

That, in the main, is a conclusion which still holds good. In all parts of the world it has been found that color discrimination, even amongst the lowest savages, is far more accurate than color nomenclature. Thus of an African Bantu tribe, the Mang'anja, Miss Werner states that they can discriminate all varieties of blue in beads, but call them all black. The sky is black: so is any green, brown or grey article, though a very bright grey counts as white. Violet or purple is black. Yellow is either red or white. A word supposed sometimes to mean green really means raw, unripe or even wet. Thus the Mang'anja only have three colors—black, white and red. In quite a different region, the Zulus, more advanced in color nomenclature, have not only black, white and red, but a word which may mean either green or blue, and another which means yellow, buff or grey, or some shade of brown. At the same time it now appears that the earlier scientific writers on this subject were not entirely wrong in stating that among savages there is some actual failure of perception at the short wave end of the spectrum, although they were wrong in arguing that it was necessarily involved in the defects of color vocabulary, and in imagining that it could be as extensive as that hypothesis demanded. It now appears that the conclusions reached by Hugo Magnus of Breslau, as expressed in 1883 in his study 'Ueber Ethnologische Untersuchungen des Farbensinnes,' fairly answer to the facts. In large measure relying on the examination of 300 Chukchis made by Almquist during the Nordenskiold Expedition, Magnus concluded that although the color vision of the uncivilized has the same range from red to violet as that of the civilized and all the colors can usually be separately distinguished, there is sometimes a certain dullness, a diminished energy of sensation, as regards green and blue, the shorter and more refrangible waves of the spectrum, while the colors at the other end are perceived with much greater vividness. Stephenson, more recently, among over one thousand Chinese, examined at various places, found only one case of color blindness, but a frequent tendency to confuse green and blue and also blue and purple, while Dr. Adele Fielde, of Swatow, China, among 1,200 Chinese of both sexes examined by Thomson's wool test, found that more than half mixed up green and blue, and many even seemed to be quite blind to violet. Ernest Krause also has argued that primitive man was most sensitive to the red end of the spectrum, hence setting about to obtain red pigments and acquiring definite names for them, an explanation which is accepted by Karl von den Steinen to account for the phenomena among the Central Brazilians. The recent investigations of Rivers at Torres Straits have confirmed the conclusions of Magnus. He found that, corresponding to the defect of color terminology, though to a much less degree, there appeared to be an actual defect of vision for colors of short wave-length; in testing with colored wools no mistake was ever made with reds, but blues and greens were constantly confused, as were blue and violet.

It may even be argued that the same defect exists to a minor degree not only among the peoples of Eastern Asia whose æsthetic sense is highly developed, but among civilized Europeans when any kind of color blindness is altogether excluded. This was noted long since by Holmgren, who remarked that some persons, though able to distinguish between blue and green wools when placed together, were liable to call the blue wool green, and the green blue, when they saw them separately. Magnus also showed that such an inability is apt to appear at a very early stage in some persons when the illumination is diminished, although the perception of red and yellow remains perfectly distinct. He further showed that blue and green at certain distances are often much more difficult to recognize than red. Most people probably are conscious of difficulty in distinguishing blue and green pigments with diminished light and find that blue easily passes into black. Violet also appears for many people to be merely a variety of blue; the word itself, we may note, is recent in our language, and plays a very small part in our poetic literature, and in fact the color itself, if we rigidly exclude purple, is extremely rare in nature. It is a noteworthy fact in this connection that in normal persons the color sense may be easily educated; this is not merely a fact of daily observation, but has been exactly demonstrated by Féré, who by means of his chromoptoscopic boxes, containing very dilute colored solutions, found that with practice it was possible to recognize solutions which had previously seemed uncolored. It is also noteworthy that in the achromatopsia of the hysterical, as Charcot showed and as Parimand has since confirmed, the order in which the colors usually disappear is violet, green, blue, red; sometimes the paradoxical fact is found that red will give a luminous sensation in a contracted visual field when even white gives no luminous sensation. This persistence of red vision in the hysterical is only one instance of a predilection for red which has often been noted as very marked among the hysterical. Red also exerted a great fascination over the victims of the mediæval hysterical epidemics of tarantism in Italy, while the victims of the German mediæval epidemic of St. Vitus's dance imagined that they were immersed in a stream of blood which compelled them to leap up.

It may be noted that red and perhaps yellow have been stated to be the only colors visible in dreams; this is possibly due to the blood-vessels. Such an explanation is probable with regard to the various subjective visual sensations which constitute an aura in epilepsy, among which, as Gowers notes, red and reddish yellow are most frequently found. Féré has further noted that in various emotional states somewhat resembling epilepsy, and even in mystic exaltation, red may be subjectively seen. Simroth has gone so far as to argue that not only is red fundamental in human color psychology, but that in living organisms generally, even as a pigment, red is the most primitive of colors, that since the algae at the greatest sea-depths are red it is possible that protoplasm at first only responded to rays of long wave-length, and that with increased metabolism colors became differentiated, following the order in the spectrum.

If it is really the case that in the evolution of the race familiarity with the red end of the spectrum has been earlier and more perfectly acquired than with the violet end, and that red and yellow made a more profound impression on primitive man than green and blue, we should expect to find this evolution reflected in the development of the individual, and that the child would earlier acquire a sensitiveness for red and orange and yellow than for green and blue and violet. This seems actually to be the case. The study of the color sense in children is, indeed, even more difficult than in savages; and many investigators have probably succumbed to the fallacies involved in this study. Doubtless we may thus account for some discrepancies in the attempts to ascertain the facts of color perception and color preference in children, while doubtless also there are individual differences which discount the value of experiments made on only a single child. A few careful and elaborate investigations, however, especially that of Garbini on 600 North Italian children of various ages, have thrown much light on the matter. There is fairly general agreement that red is the first color that attracts young children and which they recognize. That is the result recorded by Uffelmann in Germany, while Preyer found yellow and red at the head; Binet in France concluded that red comes first; Wolfe in America reached the same result, and Luckey noted that his own children seemed to enjoy red, orange and yellow very much earlier than they could perceive blue, which seemed to come last. Baldwin, indeed, found in the case of his own child that blue seemed more attractive than red; his methods have, however, been criticised, and his experiments failed to include yellow. Mrs. Moore found that her baby, between the sixteenth and forty-fifth weeks, nearly always preferred a yellow ball to a red ball; this was doubtless not a matter of color, but of brightness, for there is no reason to suppose chromatic perception at so early an age. Red, orange and yellow, it may be added, are perceived by a slightly lower illumination than green, blue and violet, the last being the most difficult of all to perceive, so that it is not surprising that the colors at the violet end should be inconspicuous to young infants. Garbini, whose experiments are worth noting in more detail, found that the order of perception is red, green, yellow, orange, blue and violet, and as he experimented with a large number of children and used methods which so competent a judge as Binet regards as approaching perfection, his results may be considered a fair approach to the truth. He found that for the first few days after birth the infant shuns the light; then, about the fourteenth day, he ceases to be photophobic and begins to enjoy the light, as is shown by his being quieted when brought into a bright light and crying when taken from it; this may sometimes begin even about the fifth day. Between the fifth week and the eighteenth month children show signs of distinguishing white, black and grey objects. It is not until after the eighteenth month that their chromatic perception begins, any preference for red and yellow objects at an earlier age being due merely to their greater luminosity. Garbini considers that it is the center of the retina, or the portion most sensitive to red and yellow, which is most exercised in young infants. Between the second and third years children, both boys and girls, were found to be most successful in the recognition of red, then of green, but they very often confused orange with red, and mixed up yellow, blue, violet and green; he thinks they tend to confuse a color with the preceding color in spectral order. Under the age of three children may be said to be color-blind, and they are liable to confuse rosy tints with green. Between the ages of three and five they are able to distinguish red in any gradation, green nearly always, with an occasional confusion with red, while yellow is sometimes confused with orange, orange sometimes replaced by rose, blue often not recognized in its gradations, and violet often selected in place of blue. At this age, also (as in hysterical anæsthesia of the retina), blue seems dark or black. In the fifth and sixth years red, green and yellow are always correctly chosen; orange gradations are not always recognized, and blue and violet come last, being sometimes confused. In the sixth year children are perfecting their knowledge of orange, blue and violet and completing their knowledge of color designations. Garbini has reached the important result that color perceptions an.d verbal expression of the perceptions follow exactly parallel paths, so that in studying verbal expression we are really studying perception, with the important distinction that the expression comes much later than the perception.[3] These investigations of Garbini are very significant, and there can be little doubt that the evolution of the child's color sense repeats that of the race.

In dealing with the color perceptions of savages and children we are, of course, to some extent dealing more or less unconsciously with their color preferences. There is some interest from our present point of view in considering the conscious color preferences of young and adult civilized persons. Red, as we have seen, is the color that fascinates our attention earliest, that we see and recognize most vividly; it remains the color that attracts our attention most readily and that gives us the greatest emotional shock. It by no means necessarily follows that it is the most pleasurable color. As a matter of fact, such evidence as is available shows that very often it is not. There seems reason to think that after the first early perception of red, and early pleasure in it, yellow or orange is frequently the favorite color, the preference often lasting during several years of childhood; Preyer's child liked and discriminated yellow best, and Miss Shinn was inclined to think that it was the favorite color of her niece, who in the twenty-eighth month showed a special fondness for daffodils and for a yellow dress. Barnes found that in children the love of yellow diminishes with age. Binet's child was specially preoccupied with orange. Aars in an elaborate and frequently varied investigation into the color preferences of eight children (four of each sex), between four and seven years of age, found that with the boys the order of preference was blue and yellow (both equal), then red, lastly green; while with the girls the order was green, blue, red and yellow; in combinations of two colors it was found that combinations of blue come first, then of yellow, then green, lastly red. It was found (as J. Cohn has found among adults and cultivated people) that the deepest and most saturated color was most pleasing; and also that the love of novelty and of variety was an important factor. It will be observed that at this age green was the girls' favorite color and that least liked by the boys, whose favorite color, in combination, was blue; the number of individuals was, however, small. This was in Germany. In America, among 1,000 children, probably somewhat older on the average (though I have not details of the inquiry), Mr. Earl Barnes found, like Dr. Aars, that more boys than girls selected blue, while the girls preferred red more frequently than the boys; Barnes considers that with growing years there is a growing tendency to select red; as is well known, girls are more precocious than boys. Among 100 students at Columbia University, the order of preference was found to be blue (34 per cent), red (22.7 per cent), and then at a more considerable distance violet, yellow, green. It is noteworthy that among 100 women students at Wellesley College the order of preference was not very different, being blue (38 per cent), red (18 per cent), yellow, green, violet; in a later investigation the order remained the same, there being only some increase in the preference for red; it was considered that association accounted for the preference for blue, while more conscious as well as more emotional elements entered into the preference for red.

By far the most extensive investigation of color preference was that carried on at Chicago by Professor Jastrow on 4,500 persons, mostly adults, of both sexes and various nationalities.[4] Blue was found to be the favorite color, less than half as many persons preferring red; of every thirty men ten voted for blue and three for red, while of every thirty women five voted for red and four for blue. The men also liked violet and on the whole confined their choice to but few colors, the women also liked pink, green (very seldom chosen by men) and yellow, and showed a tendency to choose light and dainty shades. There was on the whole a decided preference for dark shades; the least favorite colors were yellow and orange. It is evident that, as we should expect, within the elementary field of popular esthetics, women show a more trained feeling for color than men.

It is not quite easy to coördinate the various phenomena of color predilection. Careful and extended observations are still required. It seems to me, however, that the facts, as at present ascertained, do suggest a certain order and harmony in the phenomena. It is difficult not to believe that there really is, both among many uncivilized peoples and also many children at an early age, even to a slight extent among civilized adults, a relative inability, by no means usually absolute, to recognize and distinguish the tones of color at the more refrangible end of the spectrum. The earliest writers on the subject were wrong when they supposed that color nomenclature at all accurately corresponded to color perception, and it is well recognized that there are no peoples who are wholly unable to distinguish between green and blue and black. But as Garbini has clearly shown, there really is a parallelism between color nomenclature and color recognition, and Garbini's wide investigation has confirmed the experiments of Preyer on a single child by showing that there is a certain hesitancy and uncertainty in recognizing the colors at the more refrangible end of the spectrum, long after children are familiar with the less refrangible end. In the same way the important investigations of Rivers have confirmed the earlier observations of Magnus and Almquist in showing that savages in many cases exhibit a certain difficulty in recognizing and distinguishing blue and green, such as they never experience with red and yellow. The ness of color nomenclature as regards blue and green thus indicates, though grossly exaggerating, a real psychological fact, and in this way we have an explanation of the curious fact that in widely separated parts of the world (at Torres Straits, among the Esthonians at Rome, etc.) as civilization progressed it was found necessary to borrow a word for blue from other languages.

There is almost complete harmony among a number of observers, now very considerable, in many countries, showing that the colors children first take notice of and recognize are red and yellow, most observers putting red first. There is no true predilection for these colors at this early age because the other colors do not yet seem to have been perceived. At first, doubtless, all colors appear to the infant as light or dark, white or black. That this is so is indicated by the experience of Dr. George Harley, who at one period of his life, in order to cure an injury to the retina caused by overwork at the microscope, resolutely spent nine months in absolutely total and uninterrupted darkness. When he emerged he found that, like an infant, he was unable to appreciate distance by the eye, while he had also lost the power of recognizing colors; for the first month all light colors appeared to him perfectly white and all dark colors perfectly black. He fails to state the order in which the colors reappeared to him. It is well recognized, however, that eyes long unexposed to light become color-blind for all colors except red. Preyer's child in the fourth year was surprised that in the twilight her bright blue stockings looked grey, while for some time longer she always called dark green black. By the sixth year all colors are seen and known with fair correctness. Among young children at this age, so far as the evidence yet goes, red is rarely the preferred color, this being more often yellow, green or blue. There is doubtless room here for a great amount of individual difference, but on the whole it appears that children prefer those colors which they have most recently learnt to recognize, the colors which have all the charm of novelty and newly-won possession. It is probable, too, that (as Groos has also suggested) the stimulation of red is too painfully strong in this stage of the development of the color sense to be altogether pleasurable, in the same way that orchestral music is often only a disturbing noise to children.

One may note in this connection that hyperesthesia to color is nearly always an undue sensibility to red and very rarely to any other color. The case has been recorded of a highly neurotic officer who, for more than thirty years, was intolerant of red-colored objects. The dazzling produced by scarlet uniforms, especially in bright sunshine, seriously interfered with the performance of his duties, and in private life red parasols, shawls, etc., produced similar effects; he was often overcome in the streets by giddiness, sometimes almost before he realized that he was looking at a red object. Many years ago Laycock referred to the case of a lady who could not hear to look at anything red, and Elliston also had a lady patient to whom red was very obnoxious, and who, when put into a room with red curtains, drank seven quarts of fluid a day. I am not aware that any such hyperæsthesia exists in the case of other colors. It is also noteworthy that the morbid affection in which color is seen when it does not exist is most usually a condition in which red is seen (erythropsia), yellow being the color most frequently seen after red (a condition called xanthopsia); the other colors are very rarely seen, and Hilbert, in his monograph on the pathology of the color sense, considers that this is due to the fact that red and yellow make the most intense effect on the sensorium, which thus becomes liable not only to direct but to reflected irritation, in the absence of any external color stimulus. There are other facts which show that of all colors red is that which acts as the most powerful stimulus on the organism. Münsterberg, in some interesting experiments which he made to illustrate the motor power of visual impressions as measured by their arresting action on the eye-muscles, found that red and yellow have considerably more motor power in stimulating the eye than the other colors. It may be added also that, as Quantz has found, we overestimate the magnitude of colors of the less refrangible part of the spectrum and underestimate the others.

After puberty blue seems still to maintain its position, but red has now come more to the front, while yellow has definitely receded; although so favorite a color in classic antiquity, it is rarely the preferred color among ourselves. J. Cohn in Germany found that among a dozen students it was never in any degree of saturation the preferred color, while at Cornell Major found that all the subjects investigated considered yellow and orange either unpleasant or among the least pleasant colors.

While blue seems to be the color most usually preferred by men, red is more commonly preferred by women, who also show a more marked predilection for its complementary green. Whether the feminine love of red shows a fine judgment we could better decide if we knew among what classes of the population red lovers and blue lovers respectively predominate; it may be noted, however, that the necessities of dress give the most ordinary woman an acquaintance with the elementary æsthetics of color which the average man has no occasion to acquire. In any case it might have been anticipated that, even though the typically 'cold' color should appeal most strongly to men, the most emotional of colors should appeal most strongly to women.

  1. A further partial exception is furnished by the tendency to prefer green which may be found in certain countries, now or formerly Mahommedan, such as North Africa and to a large extent Spain, which have an arid and more or less desert climate.
  2. In this connection I may mention that the preference for green, which, as I have shown elsewhere ("The Color Sense in Literature," Contemporary Review, May, 1896), developed in English literature with the rise of Puritanism in the seventeenth century.
  3. Garbini, "Evoluzione del senso cromatico nella infanzia," Archivio per l'Anthropologia, 1894. T.
  4. J. Jastrow, "The Popular Æsthetics of Color," Popular Science Monthly, 1897.