Psychological Effects of Color on Human Behavior
For centuries, artists have manipulated color to evoke certain responses from their audiences. Interior designers, advertisers, and others routinely select colors based on how they are believed to affect people.
But does color really affect human behavior? If so, can these effects be identified, measured, and utilized as a tool to improve our lives?
Color psychology, the study of how color affects mood and behavior, is a relatively new science, and determining the effects, if any, of color has been difficult. Research is complicated by a number of factors.
The color itself is not simple. Hue, saturation, and brightness must all be accounted for. There are many shades of any color. Which shade should be tested? Will the results apply to other shades, or do different shades of the same color affect humans differently?
What Affects Our Perception?
Our perception of color is affected by a number of factors, and the same color can appear quite different under different conditions. In the picture to the right, for example, the squares labeled A and B are actually the same shade of gray (I didn't believe it either, but the proof is found on the website of MIT professor Edward H.Adleson).
It is difficult to distinguish actual physiological reactions from culturally learned responses and individual preferences. For example, studies have shown that the color red can increase blood pressure and pulse rate. Is this a physiological reaction, or is it because the subject has learned to associate red with alarms and warnings? Or did this subject's date simply wear a very sexy red dress the prior evening?
The Role of Culture
Much of a color's effect may be due to meanings assigned to that color within a given culture, which can vary widely from one culture to another. In the US, for example, brides wear white, but in some Asian cultures, white is associated with death and mourning.
Even within the same culture, colors can have different (sometimes even opposing) meanings based on context. The bad guy may wear black, but so do judges in the courtroom. Red can be a warning of impending danger, but cards bearing red hearts are exchanged on Valentine's Day.
Individuals also have their own subjective color preferences and often have unique associations to specific colors, as well. If your grandfather always drove a bright yellow jeep (as mine did), for example, then you may subconsciously associate bright yellow with feelings of happiness.
Warm and Cool Colors
While no definitive, universal reactions to color have been found, some generalizations can be made. Colors at the red end of the spectrum are considered to be "warm" colors, while those in the blue range are "cool." Warm colors are generally seen as more stimulating than cool ones, which are believed to be calming.
Softer shades are more soothing. Pink, which is really a light shade of red, can be soothing even though red is a stimulating color, and sky or baby blue is more soothing than navy blue.
Clearly, using color to affect mood and behavior is not an exact science. The variables are too many, and the differences in response from one individual to the next are too great. Still, research suggests that some colors may tend to have measurable physiological effects on many people, if not all.
Culturally learned meanings of color are also quite powerful and can be used to subtly affect mood and behavior in some people. The following list discusses some of the meanings commonly associated with various colors in the US and other western societies, as well as the results of scientific studies on specific colors where applicable:
Red represents danger, warning, or error, but also warmth, love, passion, and intense emotion. It can also symbolize bravery, war, or blood. Some studies have shown it to stimulate appetite (which is why there's so much red at McDonald's restaurants) and improve accuracy on certain tasks.
Pink is the lighter shade of red that represents love and romance, as well as femininity. Pink is generally considered to have a calming effect.
Yellow is a bright, attention-getting color that is seen as a sunny, happy color, yet studies have also shown, paradoxically, that prolonged exposure to it can make adults lose their tempers and babies cry. Yellow is also the most fatiguing color to the eye.
Blue is seen as having a calming effect. Darker shades of blue (as in police uniforms and business suits) may suggest reliability and security. The color is also often associated with sadness. Studies suggest that the color blue can increase productivity and creativity and may actually lower body temperature and pulse rate.
Orange is a combination of yellow and red, and it's also a warm, stimulating, and attention-getting color.
Brown is a combination of darker shades of red, yellow, and orange that are warm but less stimulating. These earthy colors can suggest strength and security.
Green is a combination of blue and yellow; this color is generally a physically soothing color that may simultaneously produce an emotional lift. Green is the color most associated with nature and sometimes signifies good luck or money (which may be why at its extreme, green is associated with envy).
Purple is associated with royalty, wealth, and luxury, as well as spirituality and wisdom. Purple can seem exotic, but sometimes overly so. In some instances, purple can appear out of place or even artificial.
White represents purity, innocence, and goodness (the good guy is the one in the white hat). White makes a room seem brighter and more spacious, but too much white can have a sterile, cold effect.
Black represents death, mourning, and evil (think Darth Vader) but also sophistication, as in formal wear, and authority, as in a judge's robe.
Gray is literally a "middle-of-the-road" color that is a practical, timeless color but also dull or even depressing when used in excess. Gray causes the least eye fatigue of any color.
Using Color in Your Own Life
Color is a tool you can use to alter your own mood, behavior, and performance. Unfortunately, while there are general guidelines, no one can tell you exactly how to do it.
The general principles discussed here are a place to start. You may want to learn even more from the color experts, but ultimately you'll need to experiment and notice the effects that different colors, shades, and color combinations have on you personally. You can then begin to utilize those colors to produce positive results in your life.
Renato on July 12, 2019:
Do you have questionnaire on how color affects the moods of individual?
Gracie on April 17, 2019:
Thx. This helped e a lot on my science project.
Sheri on April 07, 2019:
It is great information and I would like to say thanks.
Sueany Goodheart on February 12, 2019:
may I get info on abstract on how colours affects human behaviour
Jemimah on January 07, 2019:
This sounds interesting and it will help me with my soon science project
Ariana on January 04, 2019:
this helped me a lot with my science project .
Heena on July 19, 2018:
Can someone please help me out with few references to understand colour and texture impact or psychology of children with intellectual disability?
Mae Hanson from Geneva on May 24, 2016:
Very interesting hub. I have always been wary of choosing the right color schemes for decorating my house, and have found that people tend to feel more relaxed when I paint the walls lighter, cooler colors. Now I understand why. Thanks!
Suzie from Carson City on May 03, 2016:
Hello Doc....I happened upon this hub and enjoyed reading. I find it fascinating as well as educational. Colors play an integral part in many areas of our lives. Thank for this well-written article.
HK from London on December 03, 2014:
Cool hub. Also, it's said that people in colder climates tend to like warmer colours like yellows and people in warmer climates like cool colours like blue.
Brendan Spaar from Alpharetta, GA on December 02, 2014:
I have been interested in color psychology for many years. My mother read about it when she was in high school in the 70s. Her favorite book was The Luscher Color Test. I believe personalities do have "colors" & understanding the qualities associated with each one is valuable in helping to understand how to best get along with people.
Mark Tulin from Long Beach, California on October 26, 2014:
I really enjoyed this informative hub on colors and how they can affect our moods. Also loved the structure and presentation of the hub. Thumbs up.
jeswill01 on March 07, 2013:
My mother (now deceased) suffered from mental illness during most of her adult life. She suffered severe mood swings that we currently call "bi-polar". Had she lived in our current generation, she could have been controlled with medication. The color red triggered her manic responses. If a friend had a red shirt, or she saw a red highway sign, she would almost immediately retreat to her worst behavior. This makes me wonder if there was something within her, beyond her disease, that triggered these emotional responses. As a result, we always tried to avoid exposing my mother to anything red in color. The consequences were immediate and very negative.
Glen Nunes (author) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on January 02, 2013:
Narcisse - I'm glad you found something here that was helpful. I hope you got a good grade on your science project.
Narcisse on December 31, 2012:
Thanks! This helped me a lot in doing my science fair project for school. :)
Harry Styles on October 14, 2012:
Thanks! This will really help me and the lads relax during our exhausting tours around London and soon around the World.:) xx
Glen Nunes (author) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on April 28, 2012:
Interesting point, scott. I figure that as vision is perhaps our most important means of sensing the world, and color is such an important element of vision, it's not unreasonable to think that color would have a physiological effect. It's a powerful stimulus that hits the brain - how could it not have some effect?
Thanks for commenting!
scottcgruber on April 28, 2012:
Interesting hub! I wonder how much of the psychology of color has to do with physiology. The three types of cone cells in our eyes respond to blue, green, and red light. All other colors are blends of these. That might be part of the reason blue and green are soothing, if they require fewer neurons to fire. Something to ponder, anyhow.
Glen Nunes (author) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts on April 27, 2012:
Thanks PWalker. I absolutely know that color affects mood, and I believe that at least part of the effect is physiological. I wasn't doing it consciously, but someone once pointed out to me that I often wear "loud" shirts when I'm down. I guess I'm instinctively drawn to the bright colors as a means to pick myself up.
PWalker281 on April 25, 2012:
I find that blues, greens, and purples are very soothing and have lots of these colors in my wardrobe. I can't stand wearing red and yellow on the other hand, unless they are combined with blues to soften the "impact." I definitely believe color affects mood and causes physical certain reactions because I can "feel" the difference depending on what I'm wearing or the color scheme of a room I'm in. Very informative and well-written hub. Voted up and interesting.