Max Lüscher: A pioneer in the study of human emotion

Max Lüscher, who was known to the public due to his colour test as the “Swiss colour psychologist” or "colour guru" died on 2 February 2017 in Lucerne at the age of 93. Until recently, his life was dedicated to research. With tireless devotion, he examined the connection between inner experience and objective reality, and the emergent subjective expression in all spheres of life. He developed a conceptual model which included six categories: directive - receptive, constant - variable, integrative - separative; with which emotion, motivation, and the resulting behaviour can be described.

This conceptual model - the Lüscher cube - is the quintessence of his long and active working life, and his gift to posterity. The model allows us to understand the ambivalence of human thought and action, which may lead to flights of fancy, or inconceivable cruelty. The Lüscher cube, as a model of categorical thinking, permits an understanding of these connections. If one understands this model, it shows each individual how to get out of a complicated situation and regain normal balance. Max Lüscher, who as a Swiss national experienced the Second World War only from the sidelines, was as a young man - in his own words - so shocked by the cruelty of the war that this knowledge of the human abyss never left him. His regularly revised and expanded his book "Das Harmoniegesetz in uns" [The Law of Harmony in us]. This was his appeal to "unconscious knowledge", the "conscience", which controls the harmonious balance of basic emotions in everyone. The book was a bestseller for a long time, and was translated into many languages. With this book, Max Lüscher appealed to common sense. He was convinced that anyone can understand the model without previous academic training, to the extent that it could help anyone to overcome individual egocentricity and lead a meaningful and harmonious life.

This doesn't require any mental acrobatics, because for this purpose he developed a non-verbal method which allows exploration of the system of emotional regulation using specific test colours. By the age of 23 he had already discovered colours as a means of testing. However, he could in this regard draw on previous work in experimental psychology and psychophysics, as well as the psychology of expression, but his interests lay far beyond the simple effects of colour. For years he searched for psychologically functional colours. He experimented with different materials and pigments. He tested his colour results in a long series of studies on patients in psychiatric hospitals in Basel. He presented the first results in 1947 at the World Congress of Psychology in Lausanne, and attracted a great deal of interest from professional experts with his colour diagnostic.

However, the colours alone would never have sent him on his way, had he not also studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Basel. At the time, the professorial chair was occupied by the Swiss philosopher Paul Häberlin. This period of study was formative for him, and helped him to move beyond the psychology of simple colour and expression, and anchor his test setup in a specific anthropological system. He defined the foundations of this model in 1949 at the age of only 25, in his thesis "Die Farbe als psychologisches Untersuchungsmittel" [Colour as an aid in psychological diagnosis]. He received a lot of attention for this work, which was awarded "summa cum laude". His test method, an innovative psychological diagnostic tool determining emotional structure, was used in psychological diagnostics. Max Lüscher presented his colour diagnostic in the context of his anthropological model from the outset. In 1952, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Claude Piguet wrote in a review that: "this young psychologist from Basel simultaneously attempts psychology of colour and personality typology" [Revue de Théologie et philosophy, Tome II, Lausanne 1952, p 341]. With respect to the personality typology, Piguet emphasized the philosophical approach, in which the French and German esprit find an unusual synthesis. The rationalist rather than empirical approach astonished Piguet. Full of anticipation, Piguet remarks on Lüscher's recourse to a priori categories and the vehement defence of only 4 typological basic forms that can describe all possible human behaviours. With a somewhat ironic undertone, he predicted that if the scientific empirical confirmation to substantiate this view was also produced, the further work of this young psychologist could be exciting. "In anticipation of the day on which psychology has attained the rigour and effectiveness of physics, we thank Mr. Lüscher that he has led us to reflect on the close relationship between psychology and metaphysics" [Ibid p 342].

Notwithstanding the sceptical comments of his contemporaries, Max Lüscher rigorously followed his research programme. After his doctorate, he was selected to work for 3 years in the anthropological institute of the Stiftung Lucerna. During this time, he was able to develop his anthropological model. In 1954, five years after his doctorate, he submitted his anthropological model in the context of his post doctoral publication "Philosophische Anthropologie, Psychologie und Kultur" [Philosophical anthropology, psychology and culture]" under Karl Jasper, the successor to Paul Häberlin at the University of Basel. This led directly to a post in Amsterdam. Lectureships at several other universities then followed (including Harvard, Yale, Melbourne, Rome, Graz and Santiago de Chile). Between 1978 and 1990 he lectured on the psychology of colours and shapes at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung in Linz. He completed his theory, so succinctly formulated by Piguet, towards the end of his creative period with the "Periodic Table of the Emotions."

Notwithstanding the rigour of his psychological system, he always warned against bias, and any deviation from the balance of the forces should be understood as a fault in the regulation system. All forms of unilateral objectivism and subjectivism, empiricism and idealism, individualism and collectivism, moralism and all kinds of ideologies he ordered in his system as an expression of exaggerated postures that have never been able to establish themselves as a result of the dynamic autoregulation system. His response to the rise and fall of beliefs, attitudes and emotions is the cultivation of 4 senses of self: inner satisfaction, self-esteem, self-confidence and inner freedom. They form the basis of 4 characterological basic forms. Max Lüscher provides a sense of what such cultivation means in an extract from his post doctoral research "Psychologie und Psychotherapie als Kultur" [Psychology and Psychotherapy as Culture] [in: Psychologia Yearbook 1955 Rascher Verlag, pp 172-214].

Given the diversity of his work and the breadth of his intellect, it seems ironic that Max Lüscher's popularity stems primarily from the "short Lüscher test", the short form of the "clinical Lüscher test". The "short Lüscher test" consists only of 8 colour cards, which are arranged by the subject in a preferred order. This extremely popular 8-colour test became primarily regarded as a game, rather than a solid and reliable instrument in the hands of professional psychologists and doctors. By publishing this short form Max Lüscher was embracing the zeitgeist. However, this significant popularity had a negative effect on the "clinical Lüscher test" in professional circles. Originally intended only to be a quick resource accessible to anyone, the Lüscher test in general became regarded as unscientific and lacking in validity. This view of the method persists to this day and is usually repeated and passed on uncritically without any effort being made to review it.

For Max Lüscher, understanding and disseminating his anthropological model, and the use of colour as a psychological aid to human emotion, was always close to his heart. In order to achieve this, he published prolifically into his old age, and as well as publishing many psychological articles, he wrote numerous books that remained on the bestseller lists for long periods - not only "Der Lüscher-Farbtest" [The Lüscher Colour Test] and "Der Lüscher-Würfel" [The Lüscher Cube], which have been translated into 40 languages, but also "Signale der Persönlichkeit" [Personality Signs], "Der 4-Farben-Mensch" [The 4-Colour Person]" "Farben der Liebe" [The Colours of Love], and his standard reference "Das Harmoniegesetz in uns" [The Law of Harmony in us], which looks at the colour test from completely different angles, both intensely in terms of theory, as well as its many useful applications. He was a gifted orator who spoke with charisma and authenticity. He was invited to numerous conferences, television appearances, talk shows and radio interviews and until shortly before his death was asked to comment as a Swiss colour psychologist and "colour guru" on very diverse matters concerning colour, emotions, lifestyle and conscious self-control. His extensive bibliophilic work and the further dissemination of his still relevant psycho-diagnostic method is continued by the Max Lüscher Stiftung foundation, and the company Lüscher-Color-Diagnostik AG.

Occasionally his direct and forthright manner, one which was nevertheless always committed to the truth, could unsteady one’s inner balance. However his humour and his struggle for true humanity simultaneously provided an opportunity for inner growth. His lifelong research led him to a deep understanding of the psychological regulation system. With his death he leaves behind a large gap, personally - but with his categorical conceptual model he also leaves behind a method for anyone who wants to take it, to begin to close this gap.


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