By Morgan Guthrie
Have you ever wondered if color affects pain perception? As it turns out, there are certain colors that elicit changes in pain sensitivity. Recently, Pain Medicine featured a study conducted by Karolina Wiercioch-Kuzianik and Przemyslaw Babel titled, “Color Hurts: The Effect of Color on Pain Perception”. The study aims to reveal the underlying mechanisms of how one’s sensitivity to pain can change in the presence of different colors. Little is known about this topic. However, the authors propose that it has potential to be very helpful in treating and managing pain in a clinical setting.
The researchers conducted an experiment that tested the effects of color on pain levels and perception. Twenty-one female and nine male participants, all of whom were in their mid-twenties, were subjected to electrocutaneous stimuli, which is the flow of electrical current through the skin. The stimuli were preceded by one of six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or pink. A blank black slide was also presented to serve as the control condition because black is the absence of color. Each participant received forty-two shocks of the same intensity and duration (37 milliamps for 200 milliseconds) to their non-dominant arm, totaling seven shocks for each color. Then, the participants were asked, “Did you see any relationship between pain intensity and the color of stimuli?” If they answered “YES”, they were asked, “What was, in your opinion, the relationship between pain intensity and the color of the stimuli?” Finally, participants were asked to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, ten being the most painful. (Wiercioch-Kuzianik & Babel, 2019)
The results conclude that red-associated pain intensity ratings were significantly greater than any other color, specifically green and blue. The authors claim this is due to the considerable impacts that color associations have on pain perception which can be explained from a psychological and evolutionary point of view. Because red is often viewed negatively and associated with emotions such as anger and embarrassment, we may subconsciously relate it to threat and danger. In comparison, green is frequently viewed positively and characterized as soothing and peaceful, which we can relate to safety and comfort.
This suggests that color plays an important role in our perceptions and reactions to pain. In addition, the authors propose many ways in which this placebo effect manifests itself in our everyday life. For example, pharmaceutical companies marketing new drugs may apply this phenomenon in choosing which color to make a product. In other words, if they want consumers to perceive a product as energizing, they may choose red or yellow (e.g., 5 Hour Energy). However, they will most likely choose blue if they want the product to be perceived as tranquilizing (e.g., NyQuil). Plenty of research has been done to demonstrate the effects of color on human cognition and behavior. Interestingly, though, research that shows effects of color on pain has just begun. With more exploration and research, perhaps scientists can utilize this phenomenon to manage symptoms of people who suffer from chronic pain and other conditions.
Wiercioch-Kuzianik, K., & Bąbel, P. (2019). Color Hurts. The Effect of Color on Pain
Perception. Pain medicine (Malden, Mass.), 20(10), 1955–1962. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pny285