Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/May 1906/The Psychology of Yellow



THE part played by red as a powerful stimulant in the psychic life is clearly pronounced and fairly uniform among all peoples at all grades of civilization.[1] The special emotional tone of yellow is by no means so easy to define. It varies to a marked extent at different historical periods, in different regions of the globe, even under civilized conditions, at different ages in the same individual. There is no color which is sometimes so exalted in human estimation and sometimes so debased. The psychology of yellow thus presents problems which are peculiarly difficult to unravel.

Among primitive peoples the delight in yellow seems to be almost universal. Red is the favorite color of savages, but—as in the personal decoration with ochre of the tribes of Central Australia, according to Spencer and Gillen—yellow is easily second, and sometimes perhaps on the same level with red. Indeed, it may even at times seem to be preferred to red. Thus in some parts of New Guinea, although the natives are fond of scarlet, they take the trouble to feed a certain parrot having red tail-feathers on a yellow root (for they have no means of dyeing) until the tail feathers turn yellow.[2] As a general rule, when dyes are known, bright yellow, after or with scarlet, is the favorite color, as it was among the Society Islanders. It was so, not only among the savages of the Pacific, but also among our own ancestors, and the primitive German woman used yellow and red ochre to adorn her face and body.[3] The early Europeans seem to have been by no means always careful to distinguish between their two favorite colors of red and yellow; they saw both colors in gold, the most precious material of their adornments; the phrase 'red gold' is almost modern, and the Kirins of the Caucasus, according to Abercrombie, used for gold a word (borrowed from the Tartars), which also means red.

Young children, who are at one with savages at so many points, share their love of yellow, and usually indeed prefer it to red, though some writers, like Scripture, are inclined to account for this as due entirely, as in large measure it doubtless is, to the greater brightness of yellow. As to the reality of the preference among the children of various nations there seems to be little doubt. Preyer's child liked and discriminated yellow. Miss Shinn found that yellow was her niece's first favorite color, and, in her twenty-eighth month, she had a special fondness for daffodils and for a yellow gown. Mrs. Moore found that in the sixteenth week her child chose a yellow ball in preference to a red, and, later, in the forty-fifth week, six times out of ten preferred the yellow ball. Binet's child could not readily distinguish yellow, but was especially successful with orange. A lady who made some experiments for me with a Belgian child one year of age found that when successively offered a red poppy and a yellow poppy, then red, white and yellow poppies, finally red, white, orange and yellow poppies, she on all three occasions chose the yellow poppy, though on the third trial she hesitated between the orange and the yellow poppies; when she passed yellow poppies growing she would point to them and want them, and was also observed to contemplate admiringly a sunflower, though usually indifferent to flowers of other colors, except pink geraniums. At this age, no doubt, the preference for yellow is mainly a question of luminosity, for the careful investigations of Garbini on a large number of children showed that under the age of three they may almost be described as color-blind and experience a special difficulty in distinguishing yellow, which even at a somewhat later age is often confused with orange.[4] When children show genuine color preferences, they appear, like adults, to be only to a slight degree attracted by brilliancy, but to a large extent by depth of saturation. This was found to be the case by Aars, who in testing color preferences used colored papers of similar brilliancy and depth. His results indicate that, as Barnes had already found, children's love of yellow diminishes with age; even between the ages of four and seven, though yellow was still one of the most favorite colors of the boys, it had ceased to be in any degree a favorite color with the girls. Lobsien, at Kiel, investigating the color preferences of a large number of school girls between the ages of eight and fourteen, reached congruent results; he adopted the method of offering the colors in pairs, and found that while orange was never preferred to any other color, there was a tendency at all ages to prefer yellow to green and usually to violet, but never to red or blue.[5] These results harmonize with the conclusion of Garbini that in discrimination of color girls are more precocious than boys, though it must be added that, as in physical development, the period of adolescence brings to an end this greater rapidity of girls in development; thus Wissler, in comparing the color preferences of freshmen and seniors of both sexes, found (as Jastrow had previously found) that with age there is a shifting of preference towards the violet end of the spectrum which is the favorite end of men, red being that of women.

Investigations on students in various countries have almost invariably shown that yellow is the least attractive color. In Germany, Cohn found among students that yellow, even in any degree of saturation, was never the preferred color.[6] In determining the color preferences of 100 students in Columbia University, it was found that yellow came, at a considerable distance, fourth, being only followed by green, while Wissler found that, for male and female students alike, yellow is of all colors the least frequently preferred (by two per cent, of the men and five per cent, of the women); among the men it was also the most frequently disliked, though among the women this dislike was transferred to orange.[7] The dislike of female students to yellow, it will be seen, seems a little less marked than that of male students. This is confirmed by an inquiry at Wellesley College, where it was found that though only 10 per cent, of the women preferred yellow, it was yet more frequently preferred than green or violet.[8] At Cornell University, in a series of careful experiments on a small number of individuals, Major considered that there was no evidence of a positive dislike of yellow, yet all his subjects found yellow or orange among the least pleasant colors.[9]

Among adults generally, it must be said finally, that yellow and orange are very seldom the favorite colors, and in ascertaining the color preferences of 4,500 men and women at the Chicago Exposition, Jastrow found that yellow and orange were the least preferred colors, though here also women seemed to like yellow more often than men.

But for mankind in general these results, undisputed as they probably are, do not hold universally good. There is one vast and highly important area of the world, by no means uncivilized in large part, where yellow, so far from being disparaged, is held in the highest honor. Throughout nearly the whole of Asia, ancient and modern—in Assyria, in India and in Ceylon, throughout China, in the Malay peninsula—yellow is usually the supreme and most sacred color.[10] In India and Ceylon yellow is preferred, whether in flowers or in garments, and the substances that produce yellow dyes are held in highest honor and are essential in the ritual of many ceremonies; in the ceremonial of Hindu marriage, for instance, turmeric is always necessary. Turmeric is in India the substitute for the saffron, probably used by the Aryans be fore they reached India, which with its brilliant yellow as of the rising sun has been used by the men of many lands from the earliest ages. It was perhaps connected with sun-worship, as turmeric appears to be to-day in India.[11] In Persia saffron possessed magic qualities and even in the medieval Europe saffron was worn in little bags and constantly used in the preparation of food. The Soma, it may be added, is of a golden color and is still used in Persia as a yellow dye. The Buddhists, again, hold yellow in highest honor, and the sacred flower of the Buddhists is yellow. In Persia, yellow is a favorite color, as it was with the Hebrews, for in the Song of Songs the bride is compared to saffron. In China, yellow is the fortunate color, though largely sharing this virtue with green and red. In the Malay states, white is holiest of all and is used to conciliate demons, but after white yellow is by far the most sacred color. According to Malay annals, a certain sultan prohibited the wearing of yellow garments in public, and even the use of yellow handkerchiefs or curtains, because yellow is too sacred for ordinary mortals, and ever since yellow has been the royal color in all Malay states.[12] It may be added that on the western borders of Asia, in ancient Egypt, although yellow was not the supreme color, it was still held in high honor; the favorite combination to express splendor was gold and lazuli.[13]

Even in classic Europe, at the highest moments of the civilization we inherit to-day, yellow, though not occupying the sacred position it has always held in Asia, was yet a preferred color, always mentioned with an affective tone of delight. In both Greece and Rome—somewhat curiously, in view of what we have had to note of the psychic reaction to it in modern times—though red was the most sacred color, yellow was the color for the festival garments of women and children, and was especially worn, Pliny states, by women at marriage. It was also the color of the priests of Cybele. Eed and yellow, according to the same author, were the colors that dominated in ancient pictures. The four primary colors, according to Empedocles, are white, black, red and yellow, exactly the four colors which Nietzsche, discussing the philology of classic color-words, states that the Greek world seems to have been made of. Yellow was with red the favorite color of Homer, and Latin poetry is specially rich in synonyms for yellow.

What is the meaning of this clash of feeling between the modern European world, on the one side, and, on the other, the ancient classic world and the universal sentiments of Asia? It is not obvious why we should have ceased to delight in a color that to the men of another age and of another continent has seemed so precious, the color of the sun, of gold and of corn, of honey and of amber. It is still a very familiar color to us, alike in sunlight and artificial light, and when not too intense is in no degree fatiguing to the sense-organs; harmonious tones of yellow, indeed, in the scheme of the decoration of a room, are for many, perhaps for most, people highly agreeable to live in. Nor can we claim that our dislike to yellow reveals a more refined esthetic sensibility than the ancients possessed, for the painter knows nothing of this antipathy. In Rembrandt, indeed, we have a painter of the very highest rank who, as he slowly approached the culminating point of his art, was more and more fascinated by yellow, until in the end his pictures, even his portraits, are entirely covered by the shimmer of old gold.

It was clearly the advent of Christianity that introduced a new feeling in regard to yellow, leading, as Magnus has remarked, to a preference for the dark end of the spectrum. In very large measure, no doubt, this was merely the Outcome of the whole of the christian revulsion against the classic world and the rejection of everything which stood as the symbol of joy and pride. Red and yellow were the favorite colors of that world. The love of red was too firmly rooted in human nature for even Christianity to overcome it altogether, but yellow was a point of less resistance and here the new religion triumphed. Yellow became the color of envy.

In some measure, however, this feeling may have been not so much a reaction as the continuation of a natural development. The classic world had clearly begun, as savages have begun everywhere, with an almost exclusive delight in red, even an almost exclusive attention to it, and for Homer as for the Arabs the rainbow was predominantly red; yellow had next been added to the attractive colors; very slowly the other colors of the spectrum began to win attention. Thus Democritus substituted green for yellow in the list of primary colors previously given by Empedocles. It was at a comparatively late period that blue and violet became interesting or even acquired definite names. The invasion of Christianity happened in time to join in this movement along the spectrum—for even in the second century after Christ's birth Aulus Gellius when discussing colors scarcely mentions green and blue—and in doing so christian energy was reinforced by its instinctive repulsion for the brilliant colors associated with pagan rites and customs. Thus it was that not red or yellow, but blue, the hue of heaven, became the traditional color of the Virgin's raiment. In ecclesiastical usage yellow has never been regarded with favor; it has usually been either a color to avoid or to treat with indifference. This feeling has not diminished with the centuries; in 1833 the use of yellow in priests' garments was prohibited, and in the protestant church yellow has never been used at all.

Yellow became the color of jealousy, of envy, of treachery. Judas was painted in yellow garments and in some countries Jews were compelled to be so dressed. In France in the sixteenth century the doors of traitors and felons were daubed with yellow. In Spain heretics who recanted were enjoined to wear a yellow cross as a penance and the inquisition required them to appear at public autos da fe in penitential garments and carrying a yellow candle.[14]

There is a special reason why Christianity should have viewed yellow with suspicion. It had been the color associated with wanton love. In the beginning the association was with legitimate love; it has already been noted that in classic times the bride's garments were yellow, while in the Iliad as well as in the Indian Gitagovinda, a bed of saffron is prepared for lovers. But in Greece, and to a still more marked extent in Rome, the courtezan began to take advantage of this association. The Greek hetaira and her Roman successor wore saffron-colored frocks and dyed their hair yellow. That professional custom of dyeing the hair has to some extent persisted, as we know, among their successors for more than two thousand years, throughout the middle ages to the present, and the injunction of Menander (as quoted by Clement of Alexandria), 'No chaste woman ought to make her hair yellow,' has been a perpetual refrain among the fathers of the church. It was as a reflection of the evolution of yellow in this direction that it became the symbolic color of inconstancy and adultery.

The outcome of the history of yellow during these two thousand years has been a curious opposition and contrast in the emotions it suggests. On the one hand, the affective tone of yellow in general has slowly become for most people either negatively indifferent or positively unpleasant. But the primitive and classic glorification of yellow has not absolutely died out. It has only concentrated itself around the word 'golden.' We see this mixed attitude reflected in the poets. They use the word 'yellow' with extreme parsimony as compared with their profuse employment of 'red,'[15] but 'gold' and 'golden' constantly recur, and always with an emotional suggestion of beauty and splendor and joy. This is, for example, very marked in Keats. Even, however, in the use of 'golden,' it is still possible to trace a latent antipathy to the color yellow. In primitive times—among the Celtic makers of the Irish cycle of legends, for instance—it was the color quite as much as the preciousness of the metal that is felt to be desirable. But among our modern poets 'golden' has come very largely to mean what is beautiful or delightful, with little or no reference to color. The epithet of 'golden-mouth,' which became the name of the eloquent Chrysostom, shows that 'gold' was used in a highly symbolic sense at an early period in the history of Christianity, while Shakespeare's 'golden lads and girls' is typical of this vague poetic use of the word. 'Golden' in English has largely come to mean not yellow or any other definite shade of color, but merely beautiful and precious, as 'red' means in Russia. The same contrast between 'yellow' and 'golden' may be found in other European languages; in French, for example, the affective tone of jaune is totally different from that of or, and it is the same in Italian and most other allied languages. As a general rule yellow is not applied by the poets to any object which suggests a definitely beautiful emotional tone, while 'golden' only in a minority of cases, as when applied to hair, corn, etc., bears any insistence on definite color.

It is not until the middle of the last century, at all events in England, that we find any definite revival of the old classic feeling in regard to yellow. It is very notable in Swinburne, who dwells with pleasure on honey and amber and other yellow substances, emphasizing their color; yet at the same time he usually avoids the use of the word yellow; 'white and gold and red,' he declares, are 'God's three chief words,' and he marks his sense of the inferiority of the word in the lines:

A comb of yellow shell for all the rest,
A comb of gold for the king's daughter.

In the course of centuries and until recent times, we find, there has thus been a gradually diminishing tendency to insist on the color of any beautiful or desirable object that is yellow. At the same time, there has been a tendency to emphasize the associations of yellow, which are really founded on one of the most ancient observations of man. Yellow is the color of bile and of a jaundiced skin. Most of the evil passions and impulses of mankind, in the popular science of primitive peoples, have their origin in the liver and the bile. The degree to which mankind has been impressed by the yellowness of bile is sufficiently proved by the fact that bile has constantly served to supply a name to yellow; thus among the Eskimo, the Chukchis, the Samoyeds, the Voguls and other subarctic races yellow (and sometimes green) are called by a word which means bile.[16] Even in our own Aryan tongues it seems to be the same, and 'gall' lies at the root not only of 'yellow' but also of 'green' and even of 'gold.' Hence it is that yellow is the color alike of envy and of melancholy. We have in Shakespeare's phrase the 'jealous complexion' (orange) and 'green and yellow melancholy,' and in Pope the 'jaundiced eye' to which 'all seems yellow.' This perpetual inhibition, initiated by the early christians, of the agreeable associations of yellow, and the concomitant emphasis, not only in language but also in actual life, of all its most unpleasant associations, may possibly account for the predominant emotional tone of yellow among peoples of European origin to-day.

A doubt may indeed possibly arise as to the complete adequacy of such an explanation. Can we absolutely exclude any innate psychic tendency physiologically rooted in the organism? A curious circumstance recorded by Latta, in his careful psychological investigation of a man operated on at the age of thirty for congenital cataract, might possibly be held to support the doubt. The first color that the subject noticed on recovering from the operation was red, while green took him the longest time to master. But 'the first time he saw yellow he became so sick that he thought he would vomit.'[17] One might be tempted to regard this incident as a brilliant justification of the association between bile and yellow and of the attitude of Christendom towards this color; an adult man, whose visual sense-organs have retained their virginal delicacy, at once becomes 'bilious' when he sees yellow! But, even putting aside the possibility of idiosyncrasy, it is fairly obvious that the man would approach the sight of colors with certain prepossessions; we are not told that he was shown yellow without being informed of its name, and since blind people are interested and curious with regard to the nature of color, we may well believe that this man had imbibed the current ideas as to yellow and that the appropriate affective tone was already associated with the color before he had ever seen it.

However that may be, the strange history of yellow in the human mind and its striking vicissitudes are not only full of interest, but they really bring us up to a great problem which the psychologist must constantly face under a myriad of aspects: the respective parts which must be assigned to the innate properties of the psychic organism and to the temporary reactions it has acquired under the influence of a slowly shifting environment. How far, the psychologist must so often ask himself, am I investigating the intrinsic qualities of the stream of consciousness? How far am I registering the images reflected from its banks?

  1. Havelock Ellis, 'The Psychology of Red,' Popular Science Monthly, Aug., Sept., 1900.
  2. R. E. Guise, Journal Anthropological Institute, Feb., 1899, p. 214.
  3. G. Buschan, 'Leben und Treiben der Deutscher Frau in der Urzeit,' p. 7.
  4. Garbini, Archivio per l'Antropologia, 1894, fasc. 1.
  5. Lobsien, Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane, 1904, p. 42.
  6. J. Cohn, Philosophische Studien, Vol. X., p. 562.
  7. C. Wissler, 'The Correlation of Mental and Physical Tests,' Psychological Review Monographs, Vol. III., No. 6, p. 17.
  8. C. Mills, 'Individual Psychology,' American Journal Psychology, 1895.
  9. D. R. Major, 'Affective Tone of Sense-impressions,' American Journal Psychology, October, 1895.

    J. Jastrow, 'The Popular Esthetics of Color,' Popular Science Monthly, 1897, p. 361.

  10. The geographical distribution of the love of yellow has been especially investigated by Arnold Ewald, 'Die Farbenbewegung,' pp. 64 et seq.
  11. An interesting study of the sacred uses of yellow in India has been written by Dymock, 'On the Use of Turmeric in Hindoo Ceremonial,' Journal Anthropological Society of Bombay, 1890, pp. 441-448.
  12. W. W. Skeat, 'Malay Magic,' p. 32.
  13. Flinders Petrie, 'Egyptian Tales,' pp. 83 and 95.
  14. Lea, 'History of Auricular Confession,' Vol. II., p. 87.
  15. Wordsworth seems somewhat to insist on yellow, and shows a special predilection' for yellow flowers; it was part of his general scheme in rehabilitating common and despised things. Walt Whitman shows a somewhat similar predilection for 'yellow' and a disdain of the conventional 'golden.'
  16. W. H. E. Rivers, 'Colour Vision of the Eskimo,' Proceedings Cambridge Philosophical Society, Vol. XL, Pt. II., 1901.
  17. British Journal Psychology, June, 1904.