Colour Psychology: How Our Tastes Change With Stress

Did you know that people in transitional or stressful situations will often create extreme environments around themselves, according to a white paper by a professor of colour science at Leeds University. Professor Stephen Westland, produced a report into our emotional reactions to colour for our podcast sponsor Harlequin and I have to say this line stopped me in my tracks.

You can hear the full interview over on the podcast but, as always, I am elaborating here.

wall painted in blazer by farrow and ball at
wall painted in blazer by farrow and ball at

Regular listeners, and readers, will remember how I was drawn to yellow during the lockdowns of last year. This is a colour that I normally don’t like at all (unless in a very soft ochre form) and then, as each lockdown lifted I resorted to: “Yellow? What was I thinking?”.

Now, having spoken to Prof Westland, I wonder if that was my reaction to the stress under which we all found ourselves. Others have postulated that the rise in popularity of green is to do with a year of deprivation of nature, which also makes sense. Although, of course, green was chosen as the Dulux Colour of the Year 2020 when they couldn’t possibly have known what was coming, so there’s an argument that green was on its way anyway. And blue, of which more later, is consistently chosen as the world’s favourite shade.

neptune's henley kitchen painted in saffron yellow
neptune’s henley kitchen painted in saffron yellow

But back to Prof Westland because look at the wall I just painted in my loft. Now if you had asked me about this two weeks ago (when I did it) I would have told you that I was having a 70s Halston moment, and we discuss his influence on interiors and the return to 70s glamour in the first part of the show. Those books with the pages facing out beloved by Instagram? Turns out it was Halston, who found the multi-coloured spines jarring. Mind you he also spent $100,000 a year on orchids so maybe don’t be too influenced by him.

When I was asked to join a campaign to promote the Yellowpop x Jonathan Adler Neon artwork, which has a 70s vibe, the orange wall wasn’t far behind. Actually we started with a bright orange but it was too much and we fell back to Blazer, a softer pinkier red by Farrow & Ball, that could also be interpreted as an extreme version of the colour palette of the rest of the house. At least it made sense to me that way. But maybe, just maybe, I have felt the need to create my own extreme environment as a post-pandemic lockdown reaction.

the designer matthew williamson has painted his London hall in a soft pink
the designer matthew williamson has painted his London hall in a soft pink

What do you think? Has anyone else been drawn to new colours over the last year. I remember saying early on that when many people were being bold with their choice of colour that I wanted restful calming neutrals around me and it’s only now that the bold has emerged.

But back to the Professor, who also told us about the concept of High Screeners and Low Screeners and this, it turns out has nothing to do with how long one spends on Instagram but is, in fact, about how easy you find it to ignore your surroundings. Designers, for example, tend to be low screeners. They can’t work if the pictures aren’t straight or the cushions are the right colour. This is definitely me and I thought it was just procrastination! High screeners, on the other hand, can happily sit at the kitchen table with a laptop and surrounded by the remains of breakfast and work just as well. So which are you?

cat-titude green envy the new wallpaper from divine savages
cat-titude green envy the new wallpaper from divine savages

One of the other areas of research that Prof Westland, whose areas of expertise include colour science, machine learning, colour imaging and design, lighting , health and well-being, is myth-busting. For example, it is generally accepted that red makes your heart beat faster. He decided to investigate and was challenged by one of his peers who asked why he was wasting his time as “everyone knows that’s true”.

But he could find only one reference to a single scientific study in California in the 1950s and has been unable to locate the original work. Instead, he has been able to establish that while red might speed your heart up it’s from, say 60bpm to 60.3bpm and yet the myth persists. Presumably, and the conversation turned before we could nail this down, because red is associated with danger and it’s the acknowledgement of danger that speeds your heart rather than the colour.

marianne cotterill location house blue panelling
marianne cotterill location house blue panelling

Confusion also reigns when it comes to blue. On the one hand the world loves it – it’s associated with sky and the sea and therefore with holidays and relaxing. But we are constantly told that too much blue light from a screen is stimulating and will ruin our quality of sleep. From which, Prof Westland, concludes, it’s not so much about the colour as the light.

“ Your eyes respond to light and send signals to the back of the brain but the eye sensors also send signals of the middle part of the brain and the part which regulates our temperature, sleep patterns and hormone secretion.

“All of that process of wellbeing is controlled to some extent by the patterns of light, and the eye cells that send their signals to the middle of the brain are doing something quite different to the parts that are controlling the phsyiological mechanisms.”

warm neutrals by earthborn paints
warm neutrals by earthborn paints

And this is why people react differently to different colours; it depends on the balance of our own emotional reactions against the physiological effects of the light.

It’s all very scientific in theory but I can tell you that I don’t particularly like blue, there is none in my house and I’m a rubbish swimmer following a particularly brutal teacher in the 1970s. So make of that what you will.

dark gallery wall by @artynads
dark gallery wall by @artynads

Other studies have also shown that white walls can be boring and uninspiring, which is what led to the push for artwork on hospital walls a few years back. I thought it was all fascinating but, in the words of Sarah Jessica Parker, I couldn’t help but notice, as I looked at Prof Westland’s Zoom background, that it was very, well, neutral.

“Well,” he said. “I’m married, and while I repeatedly tell my wife that I am a professor of colour science and I work in a school of design and I teach colour design, it turns out in this house my opinions are worth very little.

“My wall is Elephant’s Breath, which is quite famous and I don’t like it very much. But I do have a red wall – that is mine and I can see it from my desk – and a picture of old Trafford because I am a huge fan and the two things are connected.

So for Prof Westland red is the colour of happiness and as long as he can see it from his desk that is where he finds his colour joy. So now all you need to do is make a list of things that make you happy and translate that list into your decor and maybe you will also start to see the connection between colour and happiness.

red bath and wallpaper at sophie robinson's house image by
Sophie Robinson has painted her bath in farrow and ball blazer to add a splash of bright colour

We ended the show by looking at a video by House of Valentina that Sophie found on the things that all stylish people have in their homes. It’s American so there will probably be some cultural differences, but I have listed some of them below and you can listen to the show to hear my thoughts as she quizzed me. I will say this though – all any stylish house really needs is a sense of welcome and comfort and you can feel that as soon as the door opens whatever the décor and colour.

But here’s the list:

Cute soap pumps

Baskets because everyday items become more stylish when put in a basket


Pretty doormats “super stylish and super cute”

Candles – but they must be lit. And there was a dispute as to whether you should have one signature scent or vary them in each room.

Coffee table books

Seasonal door wreaths

Appropriate stemware.

And I will leave you to ponder on that….

Thanks you so much to Harlequin for sponsoring this series and for sharing this fascinating white paper with us. You will be able to read in on their site from 1 July so do look out for it.  


Tags : colour psychologyHalstonreaction to colourthe great indoorsthe great indoors podcast
Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Ha! That bit about Prof. Westland’s background vs. favorite wall reminded me of that man, Karl Pilkington (is he a comedian?), on a travel show years ago. He went to Petra and learned about how people used to live in the area and got a bit confused thinking they lived in the famous temple. He went into one of the smaller caves across the open area from the temple and said “See? You live here in this little place, you can look out at that everyday. [meaning the temple] But if you live in there, you’re looking out at this.”
    I’m neither a high or low screener, I don’t think, but somewhere in the middle. Lots of little shapes and color changes everywhere is what gets to me. BUT, if it’s somewhere I don’t look at except as I’m passing by then it doesn’t really bother me. It’s why I can stand my dining room which has to store many pantry items due to no actual pantry and a ridiculously small kitchen with less storage. But I still find long meals relaxing because I sit with my back to the storage cabinet and sideboard, looking out at a very peaceful landscape of trees, flowers, birds, and sky.

  2. Is green popular as we all sense that mother nature is in crisis?

    On blue light my eye surgeon advised me to limit exposure to screen light / blue light ( I have deteriorating corneas) and he said he always lowers the sun visor when driving to protect eyes from blue glaring headlights .

  3. I too am a low screener. I live in a conservation area, in a top floor apartment and enjoy the different shades of grey mixed with rust red of buildings and slated roofs….until across the road a high screener has had a bright yellow, dinner plate sized ADT alarm fixed, which, once dark flashes a bright blue light until dawn!! The effect on my state of mind would perhaps allow me to smash it!! If only I could reach.

    1. Love your loft room Kate! I was also excited to see that I’m officially stylish as I seem to have acquired all the items listed. Am now worrying that I’m a bit of a cliche though!

  4. Thanks so much for bringing that Neptune kitchen picture back – I love it so much! It’s weird because I don’t think I’d actually want to live with that kitchen (the natural stone floor would get WAY too icky for my low-screen tendencies and our house architecture is too contemporary to pull it off), but there’s something so visually appealing to me about the rougher textures in the mushroom tones with the smooth, soft yellow cabinets. I keep coming back to it!

  5. Thank you for bringing an expert to talk about the topic. Colour psychology in interior design is fascinating. However, it’s often presented as science when in reality it’s more cultural. On top of low and high screeners you also have people who strongly believe in the emotional impact of certain colours, this is due to autosuggestion. That’s the reason why some studies come up with results that support the specific colour-emotion theory. Also (sorry for the long comment) the blue light drama is often exaggerated. It’s not a myth, but in practice the worst blue light can do is to delay your deep sleep… by 10 minutes. That’s if you stare at a screen in full brightness for two hours straight before bed (as the study did). Thanks again for bringing new voices to your platform.

  6. Love that Blazer Red Kate… it’s a nice warm red. I find the reds with too much blue are really really cold. Although I like a dark Cherry red!!!

    The Orange you jettisoned!! I mixed Orange and Raw Sienna Acrylic Paint recently for a painting Commission and it comes out an absolutely gorgeous Saffron shade. It’s a way to tone down bright Orange.

  7. Colour! and what a warm one you have chosen for your loft! It feels like Burnt Sienna looking at the photo. While not a bright colour person myself; I think the Farrow & Ball Blazer works exceptionally well in this space as it stages the Yellow pop light, and enhances the organic texture and pattern of the brickwork. The darker shades of earth tones in the soft furnishings bring it all together in a smart cohesive setting. A whole room of this colour on a flat drywall would be overwhelming, but here it is just enough. Colour alone draws the eye but I think it also needs texture to truly come alive!

  8. I am definitely a low screener – wonky pictures drive me crazy and dont even get me started about when my husband sits on the sofa and throws the cushions on the floor!

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