Autumn shades and human perception
23rd Oct 2019
What is it about the leaves turning on the trees that has such a dramatic effect on us? We instinctively know that reds and oranges are stimulating colours that leap out at us, reminding us of fire, sunsets, anger and passion. And evidence from a branch of science known as colour psychology reveals that red really is a powerful colour...
Unlike many mammals, including dogs, way back in history we humans evolved the ability to discriminate red from green, allowing us to identify and pick ripe, tasty fruits. The colour has subsequently gathered a host of cultural associations with power, anger and sex. Fast forward to the 21st century and studies have found that wearing red can improve your performance in competitor sports (1), and that both men and women - but particularly women - are considered more attractive when wearing red compared to other colours (2, 3). Explanatory theories cite evolutionary associations between flushed red skin and fertility, while the positive connections with ripe fruit might also play a role.
Orange - the colour of our fox fur and red squirrel coats - has more earthy associations. Carrots, pumpkins and other orange fruits and vegetables owe their shades to chemicals known as carotenes, which help plants convert sunlight into energy. The colour of saffron, turmeric and paprika, it brings to mind exotic fragrances, too. It's no coincidence orange is the colour of safety apparatus, either - it's the most easily seen colour in low light and against water, hence those orange life rings and buoyancy aids. And on cold autumn days, bright orange leaves waving at us in front of dull skies definitely buoy for our spirits.
Ochre, lemon and butter yellows also have a warming effect on us. Interestingly, butter from cows that have been feeding on spring and summer pastures has more carotenoids in it and is therefore more yellow than from cows fed on winter pasture. At one point, a tax was levied on yellow coloured margarine in the United States to avoid unfair competition with pale butter, which was less attractive to consumers!
Find out more about why leaves change colour in our guide, The recipe for autumn colour.
1. Hill, R. A. & Barton, R. A. (2005). Psychology: red enhances human performance in contests. Nature, 435(7040), 293.
2. Elliot, A.J. & Niesta D. (2008). Romantic red: red enhances men's attraction to women. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 95, 1150–1164.
3. Elliot, A.J., Niesta Kayser, D., Greitemeyer, T., Lichtenfeld, S., Gramzow, RH, Maier, M.A. & Liu, H. (2010). Red, rank, and romance in women viewing men. J. Exp. Psychol. 139, 399–417.