Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 193–215

Color preference, arousal, and the theory of psychological reversals

  • Jean Walters
  • Michael J. Apter
  • Sven Svebak

DOI: 10.1007/BF00992245

Cite this article as:
Walters, J., Apter, M.J. & Svebak, S. Motiv Emot (1982) 6: 193. doi:10.1007/BF00992245


The theory of psychological reversals asserts that there are two levels of preferred felt arousal, one high and one low. Only one of them is preferred at a given time, although discrete switches (“reversals”) occur from time to time, so that each level is preferred at different times. In order to document such changes in preferred levels of arousal, 75 subjects were asked to make color preference choices at regular intervals during their working day, some for as many as 8 days. The assumption was that different colors are arousing or relaxing, and that color choice indicates arousal preference. The typical patterns of color choices that occurred clearly displayed the expected reversal effect over time and were considerably more consistent with reversal theory than with optimal arousal theory. In a second study, 41 new subjects were asked to respond to a simple mood adjective checklist each time they made their color preference choices. The results strongly supported the association between arousal preference and color preference and also supported the reversal theory thesis that low arousal preference is associated with seriousness and planning orientation (all these characterizing the “telic state”), and that high arousal preference is associated with playfulness and spontaneity (all these characterizing the “paratelic state”). Finally, both studies showed that there is a systematic tendency for long-wavelength colors to induce feelings of high arousal and for short-wavelength colors to induce feelings of low arousal.

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jean Walters
    • 1
  • Michael J. Apter
    • 2
  • Sven Svebak
    • 3
  1. 1.University of Wales Institute of Science and TechnologyUK
  2. 2.Psychology DepartmentUniversity College CardiffCardiffWales, U.K.
  3. 3.University of BergenNorway