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The Psychology of Color—How Color Affects Human Behavior

Updated on January 10, 2017
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For centuries artists have manipulated color to evoke certain responses from their audience. 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

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:

  • 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?

The squares labeled A and B are the same shade of gray.
The squares labeled A and B are the same shade of gray. | Source
  • 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 proof is found at 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?

Color and 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.

Color Meanings

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 study on specific colors where applicable:


  • Red: represents danger, warning, or error, but also warmth, love, passion, and intense emotion. 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: the lighter shade of red represents love and romance, as well as femininity. Pink is generally considered to have a calming effect.

  • Yellow: this bright, attention-getting color 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: 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: being a combination of yellow and red, orange is also a warm, stimulating and attention-getting color.

  • Brown: darker shades of red, yellow and orange are warm, but less stimulating. These earthy colors can suggest strength and security.

  • Green: 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: 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: literally a "middle-of-the-road" color, gray 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.

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      PWalker281 4 years ago

      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.

    • Doc Sonic profile image
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      Glen Nunes 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      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.

    • scottcgruber profile image

      scottcgruber 4 years ago from USA

      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.

    • Doc Sonic profile image
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      Glen Nunes 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      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!

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      Harry Styles 4 years ago

      Thanks! This will really help me and the lads relax during our exhausting tours around London and soon around the World.:) xx

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      Narcisse 4 years ago

      Thanks! This helped me a lot in doing my science fair project for school. :)

    • Doc Sonic profile image
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      Glen Nunes 4 years ago from Cape Cod, Massachusetts

      Narcisse - I'm glad you found something here that was helpful. I hope you got a good grade on your science project.

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      jeswill01 4 years ago

      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.

    • Mark Tulin profile image

      Mark Tulin 2 years ago from Santa Barbara, California

      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.

    • Brendan Spaar profile image

      Brendan Spaar 2 years ago from Alpharetta, GA

      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.

    • indianreel profile image

      Hemanth Kambham 2 years ago from London

      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.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 10 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      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.

    • Mae Hanson profile image

      Mae Hanson 10 months ago from Geneva

      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!

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