Mind Without Borders

“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Location: Columbus, OH, United States

Monday, February 05, 2007

Garish vs. Vibrant: Socioeconomic and Cultural Factors?

I noticed the following notion rattling around in my head: Emotional intensity is considered socially acceptable only up to a certain threshold level. To go beyond that is considered vulgar or ostentatious. This translates into specific sensory modalities. In particular, describing color in terms of hue, saturation, and brightness, only colors up to a certain maximum saturation are considered to be in good taste in interior decoration or fashion design. This maximum level of saturation may be somewhat higher for lower brightness levels (i.e., for darker colors). Colors beyond the maximum level, especially in schemes involving two or more such colors, are considered garish. This same aesthetic threshold may also apply to written style: the hyperbole of "purple" prose versus the understatement of mainstream literary fiction, which is more like a pale watercolor wash. But what appears garish to one person may appear rich and vibrant to another. In particular, my impression is that the "old money" upper classes in the United States would tend to have a lower threshold of tolerance for saturation or emotional intensity.

I can think of a number of reasons why this might be so. People with "old money" may be more likely to be descended from puritanical religious traditions which frown on emotional show. Or, they may be more likely to come from more northerly latitudes (e.g., northern Europe vs. the Mediterranean), where the colors of nature are less vibrant for most of the year, and thus their vision may be adapted to a lower intensity level. Or, they may associate good taste with the Old Masters, whom they have seen only in their faded contemporary versions. (The restoration of the Sistine Chapel demonstrates that the original pigments used by Renaissance artists were much more vibrant than what we see today.) Or, with ample leisure in their upbringing, their visual system may have become more attuned to fine discrimination of subtle differences in colors, and such a sensitive system may find fully saturated colors overstimulating. Or, they may be more guarded in their emotional dealings because expression of emotion can lead to vulnerability, and those with more power have more to lose.

The funny thing is, I don't know how this notion entered my head in the first place, or whether it is widely shared. Considering its economic importance for advertising/marketing, I would think it should be easy to find research on this subject. Experiments could display swatches of various colors and measure neural or physical correlates of valence and arousal; my hypothesis is that the valence would switch from positive to negative for very saturated, bright colors, and the threshold level would be correlated with socioeconomic and cultural background. In "Why We Think Blue Is Calming: Color-Mood Associations As Learned or Innate", Diana Vining of the University of Pennsylvania surveys the literature. From this paper it seems that not enough evidence exists as yet to support or refute my hypothesis.

(Crossposted from More Fantasticness.)