IF you give the patient one pill, he perks up. If you give him another pill, he calms down. That might not surprise you. What might, though, is that it still works even when the pills contain no actual medicine.
Studies show that red pills are more effective stimulants than blue pills; blue pills are more effective as sleeping tablets than orange tablets. Green, white or blue pills aren’t as effective as red ones as painkillers. But these were all placebos, administered in a series of experiments in the Sixties and Seventies, looking at how our perception of colour affects our minds and bodies. There was no painkiller, there was no stimulant.
The idea that colours affect our mood – red makes us angry, or sexually receptive; blue soothes us, or saddens us; that sort of thing – seems vaguely hippyish. Alternative medicine types push “chromotherapy”, treating unwellness with colour; an odd amalgam of Victorian pseudoscience and cod-eastern mysticism. But now, the body of scientific research into colour is growing. And it all points to one thing: our perception of colour really does affect our minds, and our bodies.
A 2004 study found that football teams wearing red were statistically more likely to win than teams in other colours. Another, in 2008, found that male volunteers shown photos of averagely attractive women on red and white backgrounds rated the women on red as more good-looking. Meanwhile, an experiment in the Seventies found that male prison inmates became physically weaker when they were housed in pink-painted cells.
The allure of red certainly appears to cross cultural boundaries. A 2012 study conducted in Burkina Faso, in West Africa, where red has explicitly negative associations, still revealed it to be a sexual trigger. Paintings with red in fetch far higher prices than those without, and Brett Gorvy, chairman of contemporary art at Christie’s international, has described it as the “most lucrative colour”.