Do you feel anxious in a yellow room? Does the color blue make you feel calm and relaxed? Artists and interior designers have long believed that color can dramatically affect moods, feelings, and emotions. “Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions,” the artist Pablo Picasso once remarked.
Color is a powerful communication tool and can be used to signal action, influence mood, and even influence physiological reactions. Certain colors have been associated with increased blood pressure, increased metabolism, and eyestrain. So how exactly does color work? How is color believed to impact mood and behavior?
What Is Color Psychology?
In 1666, English scientist Sir Isaac Newton discovered that when pure white light passes through a prism, it separates into all of the visible colors. Newton also found that each color is made up of a single wavelength and cannot be separated any further into other colors.
Further experiments demonstrated that light could be combined to form other colors. For example, red light mixed with yellow light creates an orange color. Some colors, such as green and magenta, cancel each other out when mixed and result in a white light.
If you have ever painted, then you have probably noticed how certain colors can be mixed to create other colors.
“Given the prevalence of color, one would expect color psychology to be a well-developed area,” researchers Andrew Elliot and Markus Maier have noted. “Surprisingly, little theoretical or empirical work has been conducted to date on color’s influence on psychological functioning,1 and the work that has been done has been driven mostly by practical concerns, not scientific rigor.”
Despite the general lack of research in this area, the concept of color psychology has become a hot topic in marketing, art, design, and other areas. Much of the evidence in this emerging area is anecdotal at best, but researchers and experts have made a few important discoveries and observations about the psychology of color and the effect it has on moods, feelings, and behaviors.
Your feelings about color are often deeply personal and rooted in your own experience or culture.
For example, while the color white is used in many Western countries to represent purity and innocence, it is seen as a symbol of mourning in many Eastern countries.
The idea of color psychology has been in the discussion for many years. A popular theory on color psychology is that a person’s mood can be influenced by the color, light and the surrounding. In the early stage of improving psychology, a famous theory was brought out about regarding colors and emotions which was called “rose of temperaments” which was ideated by Goethe and Schiller, matching twelve colours to human occupations or their character traits (tyrants, heroes, adventurers, hedonists, lovers, poets, public speakers, historians, teachers, philosophers, pedants, rulers), grouped in the four temperaments.
As per the temperaments originally designed by Galen, the colors were applied to them as follows
choleric (red/orange/yellow): tyrants, heroes, adventurers;
sanguine (yellow/green/cyan) hedonists, lovers, poets;
phlegmatic (cyan/blue/violet): public speakers, historians.
melancholic (violet/magenta/red): philosophers, pedants, rulers.
The idea of temperament was taken down by the times of renaissance with the advancement of medicine and biology his ideas were also dropped many times but he rose of temperaments is not actually a science but a subjective view of how personalities can be represented by the colors. This is considered as the starting point of the modern day color psychology.
How color can affect our brain?
There is no doubt the colors can stimulate our brain chemistry and create emotions according to them. The effects can be both physical and emotional as well. The human’s Occipital lobe is mostly is associated with the color visualization. The color green and blue which are the most common colors in nature can provide a better healing to stressed-out mind. The color blue is widely used in mental therapy to reduce stress and reduce the rate of suicide and Japan has gone as far as to paint the train station walls with the color blue and it has helped to reduce suicide in public spaces by 75%.
The Meaning of Colors
While perceptions of color are somewhat subjective, some effects have universal meaning. Colors in the red area of the spectrum can be yellow-based such as scarlet red and red-orange are known as warm colors. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of comfort and warmth to feelings of hostility and anger. Reds can also have an undertone of blue and are known as cool colors such as burgundy, ruby, raspberry, deep cherry. These colors are often described as calm but can also call to mind seriousness and dignity.
The subject is well documented, so we’ll take a look at some personal and professional connotations associated with six of the rainbow colors to give you a better understanding of the psychology of colors.
Red attracts the most attention and is associated with strong emotions, such as love, passion, and anger.
It’s the universal color to signify strength, power, courage, and danger. Red is vibrant, stimulating and exciting with a strong link to sexuality and increased appetites.
Red is energizing and exciting, motivating us to act. It can also give confidence to those who are shy or lacking in willpower.
It’s warm and positive, generally associated with our most physical needs and our will to survive. It exudes a strong and powerful masculine energy. It enhances metabolism, increases respiration rate, and raises blood pressure.
Wear red to energize the group or the meeting but in smaller patches of the outfit, such as a blouse or scarf. It also does wonders to uplift your mood in a dark green, grey, black and navy basic ensemble. Red ties are also favored by politicians as part of the red and blue tie partnership they wear with everything.
A little can go a long way, however, and in large areas red can cause visual strain. Wearing it too much, too often can brand you as a person in charge, but also as a bossy person!
This is the hue of encouragement, optimism, and self-confidence, marking the extrovert. Orange radiates warmth and happiness, combining the physical energy and stimulation of red with the cheerfulness of yellow. Orange can inspire courage, enthusiasm, rejuvenation, and vitality. It can also have a stimulating effect, particularly on the appetite.
It can also be a sign of pessimism and superficiality.
In business applications, orange gives the impression of affordability, depending on the shade chosen and its combination with other colors. More gentle than red, orange represents more feminine energy and the energy of creation.
For networking or a business social gathering, wear it boldly in a blazer. Pair it with a coordinating multi-colored top and solid slacks, or more cautiously in small patches in a printed top or scarf. It also combines naturally and beautifully with the Autumn shades of the Northern US taking on an artistic or grounded feel with brown and spicy shades. The downside of wearing orange is that orange dye lots vary in quality. Be sure to check your orange purchase in daylight as the harsher light can downgrade the tone. Orange ties for men are still on the power list so wear in an expensive silk foulard so that the colors gleam and radiate success.
Yellow is the color of the mind and the intellect, resonating with the left, logical side of the brain. It is creative, the tone of new ideas and new ways of doing things. Post-it notes and legal pads were invented in yellow for a very good reason!
Being the lightest hue of the spectrum, yellow is uplifting and illuminating, offering hope, happiness, and fun. It’s a warm and happy color that creates a sense of cheerfulness and playfulness, brightening people’s spirits.
However, too much yellow can cause anxiety, nervousness, apprehension, agitation, and confrontation particularly in people who are already stressed. It can also suggest impatience, criticism, and cowardice, and motivate people to become overly critical, judgmental, and deceitful.
Avoid dressing in yellow when trying to influence men. They tend to see it as cheap and unsophisticated. However, it’s brilliant to help stand out from the crowd and can easily be paired with a moderating shade to add more authority such as mid-blue or forest green. Yellow ties have fallen from the power tie rack recently but can still be worn successfully in a yellow and blue foulard print or polka dot.
Green is of nature, of balance and growth. It is restful and secure, symbolizing harmony, healing, and stability.
It also represents security and self-reliance. Darker greens relate to money, wealth and prestige, while lighter greens relate to rebirth, growth, and freshness.
However, too much green can lead to feelings of envy, greed, jealousy, and selfishness.
In business, green is beneficial for anything to do with health and healing and promoting natural, safe, organic, environmentally friendly products. Dark green is a good choice for money and financial websites.
Wear it safely and to your advantage at work, in sales presentations, asking for funding or a loan. On the lighter side of the green, turquoise and aqua are two of the most popular colors, like the darker teal, all made from varying amounts of blue and green. They remind one of sunlight on a blue sea, health, peace and abundance. Use the colors in solids or prints as tops, blouses and shells under pantsuits with camel, beige, taupe as well as purple and charcoal. Men can wear teal ties to their advantage when they want to look approachable and authoritative.
Blue is the color of trust, serenity, and peace. It suggests loyalty and integrity as well as conservatism and predictability.
This has the opposite effect on the brain than red. It is calming, reducing tension and fear, slowing the pulse rate and reducing appetite. While inspiring wisdom and higher ideals, it is sincere, reserved, and quiet. Being cool, it creates a sensation of space.
Because blue is the most universally favored color of all, it is the safest to use in business and airline uniforms. It relates to trust, honesty, and dependability, therefore helping to build customer loyalty. Blue works well for the corporate world and is often used in important meetings. Wear it when interviewing, and meeting business professionals such as accountants, insurance companies, bankers and other financial companies where trust and reliability are important.
The downfall of blue and especially navy is that it can seem mature, conservative, boring or denote a rigid outlook. However, there are many blues that are more exciting than the navy. Think of a royal or a teal blue that is credible yet more interesting.
Royal blue ties are the politician’s uniform and very predictable. Great for a conservative audience perhaps. Vary it a little with a blue or navy suit and white or pale blue shirts. What about a tie in varying shades of blue with a splash of red!
Purple is the color of imagination and spirituality, inspiring high ideals. It can be creative and individual or immature and impractical. It is also an introspective tone, allowing us to connect with our deeper thoughts.
People drawn to purple are usually sensitive and compassionate, understanding and supportive, thinking of others before themselves. They will often have a peaceful and tranquil quality, with quiet dignity about them.
Purple implies wealth, even royalty, as well as quality, fantasy, and creativity. This tone heightens people’s sense of beauty and their reaction to more creative ideas.
It is often used to denote a high-quality or superior product. If you are in a service business, use some purple in your marketing to promote your premium service.
On your next shopping trip look for purple which is a much more creative choice than buying another black jacket. It’s a good substitute for red and goes well with most pastels to give a high contrast look of authority, without resorting to the black and white cliché. Wear it with the confidence that you are going to look expensive and creative. Purple ties and pastel mauve or pinstripe shirts for men are often favored by the more adventurous, creative dressers. Wear them with confidence if you are representing a creative industry, service or product.
Color Psychology as Therapy
Several ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, practiced chromotherapy, or the use of colors to heal. Chromotherapy is sometimes referred to as light therapy or colorology.
Colorology is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment.2 In this treatment:
- Red is used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation.
- Yellow is thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.
- Orange is used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.
- Blue is believed to soothe illnesses and treat pain.
- Indigo shades are thought to alleviate skin problems.
Modern Research on Color Psychology
Most psychologists view color therapy with skepticism and point out that the supposed effects of color are often grossly exaggerated. Colors also have different meanings in different cultures.
Research has demonstrated in many cases that the mood-altering effects of color may only be temporary. A blue room may initially cause feelings of calm, but the effect dissipates after a short period of time.
However, existing research has found that color can impact people in a variety of surprising ways:
- Warm-colored placebo pills were reported as more effective than cool-colored placebo pills in one study.3
- Blue-colored streetlights can lead to reduced crime according to anecdotal evidence.
- Red causes people to react with greater speed and force, something that might prove useful during athletic activities according to researchers.4
- Black uniforms are more likely to receive penalties. Additionally, students were more likely to associate negative qualities with a player wearing a black uniform according to a study that looked at historical data of sports teams and what they were dressed.5
Color Can Influence Performance
Studies have also shown that certain colors can have an impact on performance. No one likes to see a graded test covered in red ink, but one study found that seeing the color red before taking an exam actually hurt test performance.6
While the color red is often described as threatening, arousing or exciting, many previous studies on the impact of the color red have been largely inconclusive. The study found, however, that exposing students to the color red prior to an exam has been shown to have a negative impact on test performance.
In the first of the six experiments described in the study, 71 U.S. colleges students were presented with a participant number colored either red, green or black prior to taking a five-minute test.
The results revealed that students who were presented with the red number before taking the test scored more than 20% lower than those presented with the green and black numbers.
Color and Consumer Purchases
Color psychology suggests that various shades can have a wide range of effects, from boosting our moods to causing anxiety. But could the color of the products you purchase ever say something about your personality? For example, could the color of the car you buy somehow relate to some underlying personality traits or quirks?
Your color preferences why buying items might say something about the type of image you may be trying to project. Color preferences, from the clothes you wear to the car you drive, can sometimes make a statement about how we want other people to perceive us. Other factors such as age and gender can also influence the color choices we make.
- White: color white can feel fresh and clean. The color is often used to evoke a sense of youth and modernity.
- Black: people often describe black as a “powerful” color, which might be the reason why black is the most popular color for luxury vehicles. People often describe the color as sexy, powerful, mysterious, and even ominous.
- Silver: It’s the third most popular color for vehicles and linked to a sense of innovation and modernity. High tech products are often silver, so the color is often linked to things that are new, modern, and cutting-edge.
- Red: Dreaming of a red vehicle? Red is a bold, attention-getting color, so preferring this type of car might mean you want to project an image of power, action, and confidence.
- Blue: People often describe blue as the color of stability and safety. Driving a blue car or SUV might indicate that you are dependable and trustworthy.
- Yellow: According to the experts, driving a yellow vehicle might mean that you are a happy person in general and perhaps a bit more willing than the average person to take risks.
- Gray: The experts suggest that people who drive gray cars don’t want to stand out and instead prefer something a bit more subtle.
Of course, the color selections we make are often influenced by factors including price, selection, and other practical concerns. Not only that, but color preferences can also change in time.7
A person might prefer brighter, more attention-getting colors when they are younger, but find themselves drawn to more traditional colors as they grow older. The personality of the buyer can play an important role in color selection, but buyers are often heavily influenced by factors such as price as well as availability.
For example, purchasing a white vehicle might be less about wanting people to think that you are young and modern and more about the climate you live in; people who live in hot climates typically prefer light-colored vehicles over dark ones.
Additional Research Is Still Needed
Interest in the subject of color psychology is growing, but there remain a number of unanswered questions. How do color associations develop? How powerful is the influence of these associations on real-world behavior?
Can color be used to increase worker productivity or workplace safety? What colors have an impact on consumer behavior? Do certain personality types prefer certain colors? As researchers continue to explore such questions, we may soon learn more about the impact that color has on human psychology.
Zena O’Connor, a faculty member in the Department of Architecture, Design, and Planning at the University of Sydney, suggests that people should be wary of many of the claims they see about the psychology of color.
“Many of these claims lack substantiation in terms of empirical support, exhibit fundamental flaws (such as causal oversimplification and subjective validation), and may include factoids presented as facts,” O’Connor explains. “In addition, such claims often refer to outdated research without referring to current research findings.”
Elliot AJ. Color and psychological functioning: a review of theoretical and empirical work. Front Psychol. 2015;6:368. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00368
Azeemi ST, Raza SM. A critical analysis of chromotherapy and its scientific evolution. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005;2(4):481-8. doi:10.1093/ecam/neh137
de Craen AJ, Roos PJ, de Vries AL, Kleijnen J. Effect of colour of drugs: systematic review of perceived effect of drugs and of their effectiveness. BMJ. 1996;313(7072):1624‐1626. doi:10.1136/bmj.313.7072.1624
Elliot AJ, Aarts H. Perception of the color red enhances the force and velocity of motor output. Emotion. 2011;11(2):445-9. doi:10.1037/a0022599
Frank MG, Gilovich T. The dark side of self- and social perception: black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1988;54(1):74‐85. doi:10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.52
Elliot AJ, Maier MA, Moller AC, Friedman R, Meinhardt J. Color and psychological functioning: the effect of red on performance attainment. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2007;136(1):154-68. doi:10.1037/0096-34184.108.40.206
Taylor C, Schloss K, Palmer SE, Franklin A. Color preferences in infants and adults are different. Psychon Bull Rev. 2013;20(5):916-22. doi:10.3758/s13423-013-0411-6
Kida, TE. Don’t Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make In Thinking. New York: Prometheus Books; 2006.
O’Connor, Z. Colour psychology and colour Therapy: Caveat emptor. Color Research & Application. 2011;36(3):229-234.