22 July 2014

The willing contemporary can undergo a “color cleansing” in the SCHIRN’s rotunda until the end of August. In the past, artists and researchers have time and again devoted themselves to the supposed or actual effect of colors.

By Daniel Urban

"Is currently exposed to a situation that is so stressful that it is perceived as torturous and grueling. Sees the challenges as unacceptable or as an aggressive provocation. . . . Longs for restful comfort free of conflict and for gentle thoughtfulness." What sounds like the wording of a not all too awkward horoscope, an evaluation by a psychologically trained teacher, or the result of conversational therapy is actually the result "1243" of Prof. Dr. Max Lüscher's color test in the category: How I react to challenges.

That our relationship with colors and our preference for or aversion to certain combinations or shades of colors says something about us is a widespread assumption and an assertion that for decades has frequently been drawn on in image consulting and sales psychology. Even in antiquity, in the four humors theory the physician and anatomist Galen of Pergamon assigned specific bodily fluids, such as bile, blood, and phlegm, to character traits such as cheerfulness, boldness, or uncertainty. Colors later time and again also played a major role in psychology, for example in the interpretation of dreams as developed by Sigmund Freud, who assigned them to specific emotional states. Prof. Dr. Max Lüscher, born in 1923 in Basel, also made reference to fundamental psychological structures in his color test, first published in 1947, which the founder of analytical psychology, Carl Gustav Jung, in turn took into account in the treatment of his patients.

Colors according to one's personal preference

In the Lüscher color test, one lays down cards with specific colors or shades of colors according to one's personal preference: one's favorite card first, then in descending order to the right up to the card that one spontaneously dislikes least. The color plates are subsequently turned over and the numbers printed on the reverse side noted down. The combinations of numbers that result can be looked up in the accompanying book, in which a short assessment text is assigned to each possible series of numbers.

Max Lüscher assigned various characteristics to the colors: dark blue stands for sympathy, blue/green represents self-confidence, brown equals a sense of security, and violet immaturity. These assignments are in part based on his own investigations into the effects of colors (for example, increased respiration rate or heartbeat after looking at the color red/orange for a prolonged period of time), as well as on anthropological, historical assumptions, such as the belief that dark blue represents the nighttime sky and thus communicates calmness and passiveness.

There are various versions of the color test: with eight to sixteen cards for use at home, and with up to seventy-three color fields in the clinical test version. The results are not intended to be understood as manifest statements about the participant, but rather as indications of his or her current emotional state. Lüscher frequently revised the test to adapt it to specific contexts, for example in "The Colors of Love," a special test used to analyze erotic behavior. Today, the different versions of the text are used in doctors' offices, in homeopathic treatment, in psychiatry, as well as in the evaluation of job applicants in so-called assessment centers.

Colors seem to have a direct influence on our perception

The Lüscher color test has been the subject of a large number of controversies and investigations, in particular in university psychology departments. Both critics as well as proponents agree that someone's respective emotional state determines how he or she reacts to specific color impressions. However, many people think that it is not possible to verifiably conclude that assumptions can be drawn about mental states themselves. In series of tests, critics believed, for instance, to be able to identify the so-called Barnum effect: it describes people's tendency to believe vague and general descriptions of themselves made by others.

Regardless of what one may personally think about the test--rather one is a radical follower, interested skeptic, or dismissive critic--colors seem to have a direct influence on our perception. However, it remains open whether this is more than just an aesthetically motivated reaction, comparable with our reaction to listening to music, or whether conclusions can actually be made about our own mentality or even about our mental health. With inviolable earnestness or smug skepticism: one can personally experience the Lüscher color text--like Buetti's "color cleansing"--independent of its scientific basis and make one's own sense of the link between perception, aesthetics, and emotions.