Color Preference in the Insane

The following article is from the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

(Image credit: Flickr user Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier)

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

The year 1931 stands out in the history of research about insane people’s favorite colors. That summer, Siegfried E. Katz of the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Hospital published a study called “Color Preference in the Insane.” The full citation is:
“Color Preference in the Insane,” Siegfried E. Katz, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 26, no. 2, July 1931, pp. 203–11.

Assisted by a Dr. Cheney, Dr. Katz tested 134 hospitalized mental patients. For simplicity’s sake, he limited the testing to six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. No black. No white. No shades of gray.

“These colors,” he wrote, “rectangular in shape, one and one-half inches square, cut from Bradley colored papers were pasted in two rows on a gray cardboard. They were three inches apart. The colors were numbered haphazardly and the number of each color placed above it. The cardboard was presented to the patient and he was asked to place his finger on the number of the color he liked best. After he had made the choice he was asked in a similar manner for the next best color, and so on.”

Some of the patients “cooperated well”, and made six choices. Others, Dr. Katz reported, “quickly lost interest and made only one, two or three.”

Blue was the most popular color. Men, in the aggregate, then favored green, but the female patients were divided on green, red or violet as a second choice.

Patients who had resided in the hospital for three or more years were slightly less emphatic about blue. Dr. Katz says that these long-term guests were “those with most marked mental deterioration.” Their preference, as a group, shifted somewhat toward green and yellow. Those of longest tenure, though few in number, had a slightly elevated liking for orange.

The report is packed with tidbits that beg, even now, for further analysis:

==> “38 per cent of dementia praecox and manic-depressives, each, gave first preference to blue, and 42 per cent of all other patients.”

==> “Green received the first choice from 16 per cent of dementia praecox, 9 per cent of manic-depressives, and 13 per cent of other diseases.”

==> “For red as first choice, the percentage of votes were: Manic-depressives, 16; other diseases, 15; dementia praecox, 12. As second choice, they were: Manic-depressives, 22; dementia praecox, 18; other diseases, 13.”

==> “Orange and yellow were also best liked by manic-depressives; green by dementia praecox; and violet by all others.”

Dr. Katz foresaw practical applications for his research. He suggested that “in the furnishings of living quarters the selection of colors pleasing to special groups of patients might be worth consideration.”

Consciously or not, hospital staff seem to have followed Dr. Katz’s insights in fashioning their personal at-work appearance. The evocatively-named Bragard Medical Uniforms, a New York firm founded in 1933, now publishes a list of the most popular uniform colors. The list currently is topped by, in order: royal blue; dark grey (which, alas, Dr Katz excluded from his 1931 survey); dark green; and red.

Color Preference in the Insane Reconsidered

Dr. Katz’s findings were put to the test, partially, decades later in the study:

“The Relationship Between Color Preference and Psychiatric Disorders,” Cooper B. Holmes, H. Edward Fouty, Philip J. Wurtz and Bruce M. Burdick, Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 41, no. 6, November 1985, pp. 746–9.

The authors, at Emporia State University and at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, explain, at the end of their study:
We realize that the reader may question whether the present study merely has added to the confusion about color preferences and personality and color preferences and psychiatric illness. We think not. Enough studies have been reported to present a consistently inconsistent picture of the relationship. That is, it is apparent that a clear-cut relationship between color and psychiatric illness has not been established, and our study continues to show that pattern. This brings into question the use of color in psychiatric diagnosis.


This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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