Colour and how brains shape society

The Naked Scientists spoke to Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon, AAAS, the Science Society
26 November 2006

Interview with 

Chelsea Wald and Bob Hirshon, AAAS, the Science Society

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Bob - This week for the Naked Scientists, we're going to tell you some new things we've recently learned about the brain-in particular, how our brains help shape our societies. I'll talk about money-but first, Chelsea has a report about something all our brains seem to be able to agree on-colour.

Chelsea - Gertrude Stein said "a rose is a rose is a rose." Now, psychologists Delwin Lindsey and Angela Brown of Ohio State University have proven that red is red is red. Using the World Color Survey, in which speakers of 110 different languages categorized colored chips, they found that people universally classify a colour according to its position on the rainbow. In other words, Lindsey says any non-English speaker's word for "red" would include shades like burgundy, brick, and cherry.

Delwin - Perhaps their sample might extend a little bit into the pinks and a little bit into the oranges. But they certainly would not have a colour name that would span two entirely different categories.

Chelsea - But while basic colour classifications seem to be hard-wired into our brains, the actual number of colour names and categories varies tremendously across cultures and languages. For example, Lindsey says some traditional cultures have only two different colour names, one for warm hues and one for cool hues. On the other hand, industrialized countries have far more colour names.

Delwin - In very traditional cultures in which objects within that culture could be identified on the basis of a number of different kinds of features, they would tend to use or have relatively few basic colour terms. But as that culture advanced technologically, so would its capacity to make artifacts or objects that could be distinguished solely on the basis of colour.

Chelsea - ... leading eventually to the hairsplittingly specific colour names you see in clothing or paint catalogues.

Bob - Thanks, Chelsea. Does money encourage self-sufficiency, or selfishness? Yes and yes, according to University of Minnesota consumer psychologist Kathleen Vohs. In a series of nine experiments, Vohs and her colleagues found that the mere suggestion of money - through word games, pictures, or play money - made people work longer on challenging tasks before asking for help. But it also made them less inclined to help others on similar tasks, donate spare change to charity, or even pick up somebody's dropped pencils.

Kathleen - So it suggested that they just thought that everyone should be working toward their own goals without wanting help, just like they had done in the other experiment.

Bob - Thinking about money also made people more interested in working alone, or choosing solitary leisure activities over social opportunities. The bottom line is that for better or worse, money appears to motivate self-reliance. And just as Vohs' research dealt with money in the abstract, rather than actual wealth, other studies suggest that even an academic interest in money can affect your behaviour.

Kathleen - And students and professors both who are interested in economics, they donate less to charity, and they're more competitive when it comes to games that we play in the lab, when there's a competitive or cooperative response that can be given.

Bob - The findings should give ample ammunition to both supporters and critics of capitalism.

Chelsea - Thanks, Bob. We'll be back next week with more stories from the country where money is green. Until then, I'm Chelsea Wald.

Bob - And I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, The Science Society. Back to you, Naked Scientists…


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