Colour as a Psychological Construct

By: Anna Franklin

What is colour?

Colour can be defined in many ways and the definition varies depending on who you ask. For example, a physicist may define colour in terms of wavelengths of light. A colour psychologist considers colour to be a psychological construct: it is a result of how the human eye and brain process wavelengths of light and of how the human mind perceives and interprets these neural signals in a particular context. Here, the human is integral to colour, colour is not just physical wavelengths of light, it is something that we construct psychologically. How colour is constructed and experienced depends on both the context and the individual.

This idea of colour as a psychological construct is nicely captured by ‘The Dress’ photograph that became an internet sensation back in February 2015.

A simple photo of a coloured dress is seen by some people as blue and black yet by others as white and gold. How can people differ so radically in how they see the colours in this image? A flurry of scientific studies investigating this question have followed the posting of the image, and various hypotheses to account for the variation in perception have been proposed. One convincing account is that people vary in how they read the context of the image, in particular the assumptions that they make about how the image is lit. These different assumed illuminations then lead people to perceive the colours in the image differently.

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Professor Anna Franklin is a leading expert in colour psychology. She is a Director of the Sussex Colour Group in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex in England.