Lightness constancy in psychology & design.

lightness constancy psychology

The nature of human perception and lightness constancy fascinates me as it raises important questions about the differences between reality and our perception of reality.

I have a white piece of paper next to me that, under the harsh light of Scottish winter day, will appear to have the same brightness at dusk.

How is this possible, you might ask?

Lightness constancy is a strange and wonderful thing that is sometimes referred to as brightness constancy.

Chris McCarron – GoGoChimp

Well, fellow truth seeker, it all comes down to the way our brains process visual information, colour psychology and much more.

And before you ask… Yes, all of this colour psychology stuff relates to design, web design and branding in a way that will make you rethink how you use light colours, dark colours and contrast as part of your marketing collateral.

How lightness constancy works.

lightness constancy is also known as brightness constancy
Brightness constancy is also known as lightness constancy.

When we look at an object, we don’t just see its physical properties (such as its size, shape, and colour); our brains are constantly making adjustments to the way we perceive brightness based on the surrounding context.

For example, if you look at a white piece of paper in bright sunlight, your brain will adjust your perception of the paper’s brightness as there is a lot of light in the environment.

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But that’s when things get really interesting…

If the amount of light reflected by the paper changes (for example, sunlight is diffused by a passing rain cloud), you’ll see the paper as having the same brightness.

This is because your brain is able to take into account both current conditions and your memory of the paper’s brightness under different conditions.

We do the same for colours (known in psychology circles as color constancy), size (size constancy) and shape (drum roll… yup, it’s called shape constancy) which group together to form perceptual constancy.

As a designer, understanding brightness constancy can help you create designs that are effective across different lighting conditions and environments.

While we perceive familiar objects as having the same brightness and colours in a well-lit environment vs a poorly lit environment, this will not have an effect on anything out of the ordinary (for example a blue apple).

Our moral behaviour determines our perception of brightness.

Banerjee, Chatterjee, and Sinha (2012) explore the relationship between moral behaviour and perception of brightness.

Participants were shown images of grayscale objects and asked to determine their brightness levels.

Prior to viewing the images, participants were asked to recall either a moral or an immoral action they had committed.

The researchers found that participants who recalled a moral action perceived the objects as lighter than those who recalled an immoral action.

This finding suggests that moral behaviour can affect an individual’s perception of lightness, and has important implications for how we view the relationship between ethics and colour.

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Sports teams wearing black get more penalties.

Real Madrid’s black football strip may cost them points.

Frank and Gilovich’s 1988 study on the impact of black uniforms on penalties in team sports set out to explore a bold hypothesis: that teams wearing black uniforms are more likely to pick up penalties from referees than their opponents in other colours.

Across a range of sports, from football to ice hockey to basketball, teams wearing black uniforms consistently received more penalties than those in other colours.

This pattern held even when controlling for factors like team quality and the specific rules of the game.

Frank and Gilovich suggest that the colour black may be associated with aggression and violence in our cultural consciousness, leading referees to be more likely to perceive fouls and rule in favour of the opposing team.

A popular opposing view is that in a shroud of darkness, we perform “bad” behaviours because, subconsciously, it feels like nobody will see these actions.

Therefore, sports teams wearing black subconsciously believe that they are in a shroud of darkness that masks their “bad” behaviour during matches.

In reality, it’s a mix of both self-perception and social perception processes that result in aggressive behaviour and referee bias.

Regardless, it’s amazing to think that something as seemingly trivial as a team’s choice of a black uniform has such a profound impact on the outcome of a game.

When to choose a light or dark according to colour psychology.

light vs dark colour psychology - lightness constancy
When to use light or dark colours based on colour psychology.

If you need to choose a colour for your brand, product or marketing campaign then think about “good” behaviours and “bad” behaviours:

  • Donations are a “good” behaviour: Charity websites should use a white background to encourage “good” behavioural patterns in website visitors
  • Video games: New gamers (aka noobs) may prefer a dark interface or level design when learning to play so that their mistakes are hidden
  • Adult content: Traffic to an “adult” website might respond better to a dark website to hide their behaviour
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What to do when lightness constancy doesn’t apply to your design.

lightness constancy in psychology
If an object is not familiar to us then lightness constancy does not apply.

Different colours reflect and absorb light differently, which can affect the perceived brightness of an object.

Carefully select colours that maintain their perceived brightness under different lighting conditions.

Also, consider contrast.

Contrast is the difference between the lightness and darkness of different elements in a design.

By using contrast, designers can create a visual hierarchy that draws the attention of the viewer to look at important elements in a design.

However, designers need to be aware that contrast can be affected by changes in lighting conditions.

Therefore, when lightness consistency in psychology doesn’t apply to your design or marketing campaign, then it’s important to test different lighting conditions to ensure that contrast is maintained.

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