The Psychology of Color—How Color Affects Human Behavior
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, 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?
- 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.
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.