The Psychology of Color
by Joelle Steele
Whether you're painting your house, buying a sweater, or designing a book cover, advertisement, or product packaging, color will affect the way you, your home, or your product or advertisement is perceived. Our psychological responses to color are on a subconscious level, while our conscious responses are conditioned to the symbolism behind the color, and that symbolism varies from one person to another and from one culture to another. Some of our psychological responses can have physiological effects too, such as when our heart rate goes up when we see the color red.
But the psychology of color is not an exact science. There are no universal psychological reactions to any single color. For example, Western and Eastern cultures differ in their reactions to certain colors, as do the sexes and age groups within those cultures. And even Eastern cultures differ amongst themselves. Plus, there are always the unique reactions that an individual can have to a particular color. For example, some people are nauseated by yellow, some feel happy only when wearing shades of purple, some wear blue because it makes them feel self-confident, and some feel melancholia at the sight of pastel pink. Experts believe that these reactions to color occur as a result of color referencing, associating an emotion with a color that is repeated while the individual is in that emotional state, good or bad.
HISTORY OF COLOR
Color has always been important in art, the environment, and in healing, so it is no small wonder that it is also associated with emotions and personalities. The ancient Egyptians kept their "hospitals" brightly lit and the walls decorated with bright blues, violets, and pinks. By the 4th century BC, Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle became the father of color theory at a time when his contemporary, Hippocrates, used color in medicine for healing. Other color healers were 11th century Middle Eastern doctor Avicenna (who also believed a person's coloring should always be taken into consideration when making a diagnosis), and 15th century Swiss doctor Paracelsus. However, by the latter half of the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton's work with prisms and color resulted in a new system of color theory that ended those originated by Aristotle two thousand years earlier.
During Newton's time, art and science, which had previously been more or less blended and/or overlapping bodies of knowledge, were separated into two distinct disciplines. You studied color as part of art or you studied optics and vision as part of science. By 1840, not everyone agreed entirely with Newton's two-hundred-year-old theory, and Goethe wrote The Theory of Colors, which disputed Newton's experiments, and harkened back to the much earlier Aristotelian theory. As for color in healing, by the end of the 19th century, it was no longer given any credence whatsoever.
But in the 20th century, color was at the forefront, and an eccentric Swiss color theorist and Bauhaus artist, Johannes Itten, was not only creating new ways of looking at color, but was also very interested in the connection between color and emotion. His book, The Art of Color, is a must for anyone interested in the subject, and it has not been out of print in over 70 years. In the 1970s, Angela Wright studied color harmony, the color theories of Itten and Aristotle, and psychologist Carl Jung's theories of introversion and extraversion. Like Goethe before her, Wright ended up taking her cue from Aristotle's theories of blue and yellow being the true primary colors, and she combined those two colors with Jung's theories so that yellow represented the extravert and blue the introvert. She also refined Itten's methods into her four "seasonal" color families, to which she attached personality traits.
Today, Wright's theories of seasonal color are commonly known and used by designers, and most of our modern psychologists agree that color can have an emotional impact on individuals beginning in early childhood. They also believe that the use children and adults make of color is indicative of their personalities. For example, some believe that green indicates emotional balance, black self-control, blue repression, red aggression, etc. Studies of color in the environment have also resulted in theories about how people behave in those environments. For example, prisons now paint their walls green and pink because it has been shown to calm the residents.
Despite the different responses to color internationally, the Western world has some reactions to colors that are fairly consistent, and it is those reactions that are relied upon by designers when selecting colors for homes, clothing, cars, advertisements, and any saleable products large and small.
The following is information about color groups, including insights into the personality traits, emotional and psychological reactions, and uses associated with those color groups.
Reds. Red has the longest wavelength but it is not the most visible of colors. Its psychological properties manifest as physical ones because it increases your body's metabolism, increases stamina, raises the blood pressure and heart rate, stimulates your adrenal glands, and urges you on to physical action. People who do light healing use it to increase circulation and stimulate the body as a whole. Red is an intense color that is associated positively with love, passion, vitality, excitement, assertiveness, power, strength, energy, heat, and fire, and negatively with anger, rage, danger, aggression, and war. Red is a good color for marketing because people respond to it by impulse buying. It is often said that red vehicles get more tickets, are in more accidents, and are stolen more frequently. Red in a business wardrobe is acceptable as an accent but is considered too aggressive for sales and tactful negotiations. In India and China, red is a wedding color associated with purity. The Chinese consider it a lucky color, one of celebration and prosperity.
Pinks. Pink is a tint (pastel) of red. But unlike red, it is a tranquilizing, calming, and relaxing color. It is a feminine color, gender specific to women. As such, it is associated with the warmth and nurturing, unconditional and protective love, and softness and tenderness of a mother. Other traits of this traditional color include sweetness and innocence. Marketing people love pink because it is a sure sell when it comes to candies, babies, and soaps.
Oranges. Orange has many of the characteristics of red, including the ability to stimulate the body, being particularly effective on the sexual organs, digestive system, and immune system, and also making an individual feel warm and dry. Light healers use it to heal the lungs and increase energy. On the positive side, orange is good for repairing feelings of depression and sadness or low self-esteem. It is also a fun color, filled with warmth, energy, endurance, creativity, cheerfulness, sensuality, abundance, sunshine, coziness, and ambition. On the negative side, it is associated with anger, aggression, arrogance, warnings, caution, danger, and fire. In marketing, orange represents things that are new or novel and affordable hence, like red, it encourages impulse buying.
Yellows. Like red, yellow has a long wavelength. It is the most difficult color for the eye to perceive, yet it stays on the retina of the eye longer than any other color. It stimulates the brain, the metabolism, and the lymph system, and it makes people feel alert and aware. In light therapy it is used for purification and to stimulate the neurological system. On the positive side, yellow enhances concentration and thought, and it is a purely emotional color that is associated with the intellect, memory, clarity of thought, unbiased judgment, organizational ability, optimism, self-confidence, and cheerfulness. It represents good times, creativity, and playfulness. On the negative side, it is associated with quarantine, dishonesty, greed, weakness, cowardice, miserliness, and hazards. Babies are said to cry more in yellow rooms and there is more likely to be conflict between people in a yellow room. In many cultures, yellow symbolizes the god. In many Asian cultures it is the color of royalty. In China it is a sacred color; in Greece it bodes sadness; and in France it is associated with jealousy.
Greens. Green is at the very center of the color spectrum, and it is so restful and so easy on the eyes that no adjustment of the eye is ever necessary to view it, and some believe it can actually improve one's vision. Green's effect on the body is one of complete relaxation of the muscles, relaxed breathing patterns, improvement of equilibrium, and the psychological and emotional balance and harmony of the mind. It is believed to make you feel cooler and moister in its presence. Green is the traditional color of peace, freedom, life, fertility, rebirth, the environment, nature, and all things natural. In Western culture, it is the color of envy and jealousy, and in the United States it is also the color of money and wealth, as American currency is printed in green ink. On the positive side, green brings feelings of calmness, ease, relaxation, harmony, good health, freshness, and mobility. On the negative side, it can promote laziness, and is associated with guilt, sickness, disease, and greed. Certain muted shades can be evocative of death and decay and the more yellow in the green, the less popular the color. Green tends to be a more masculine color and it is the most popular color for decorating. It is used in hospitals because it is calming to patients. In medieval times, brides wore green to symbolize their fertility. In India, green is associated with the Islamic religion.
Blues. Blue is the second most powerful color after red. The deep blues have physiological properties that lower blood pressure, stimulate the pituitary gland, regulate sleep patterns and reduce insomnia, suppress the appetite, and keep bone marrow healthy. It also helps the body produce calming chemicals in the brain. In light therapy, blue is used to treat physical pain and emotional stress. Blue in general is calming in its properties and can make you feel cool. It is a predominantly masculine color, but it is also named the most favorite color by men and women alike. On the positive side, it is an intellectual, mental, contemplative color that inspires the imagination and creativity, analytical ability, scholarly aptitude, mental focus, and the control of mind over matter. It is the most politically correct color and is positively associated with faith, trust, loyalty, dignity, community, security, reliability, authority, success, idealism, traditional values, and professionalism. On the negative side, too much dark blue can be perceived as depressing, and blue can be associated with sadness, depression, loss, coldness, and obscenity. Marketing people like blue because the bright blues encourage buying (while the light blues and teals tend to discourage buying). Many businesses paint and decorate with blue because workers tend to be more productive in those environments. Sports are also improved with blue surroundings. It is the most popular color used in bedrooms. It is also the best color to wear for an employment interview. In India, it is associated with the god Krishna.
Purples. Purple — more specifically violet — has the shortest wavelength and is the last visible color before the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum. It has properties that suppress hunger, are antiseptic, and balance the metabolism. In light therapy, purples are used to treat skin problems and soothe sunburns. Purple is also believed to be good for balancing the mental state of a disturbed person by bringing peace and tranquility to their fearful and nervous states. On the positive side, its psychological properties are mental and spiritual, relating to sensitivity, high ideals, creativity, religion, compassion, beauty, romance, fantasy, dreams, mysticism, wisdom, justice, the supernatural, and psychic ability. It is a largely feminine, cool color that is related to the cosmos and space, and its older symbolisms related to royalty include luxury, costliness, prosperity, wealth, dignity, respect, nobility, and sophistication. On the negative side, purple represents things that are hidden, also ambiguity, flamboyance, arrogance, gaudiness, confusion, uncertainty, hidden things, loneliness, loss, grief, mourning, and exaggeration. In non-U.S. countries it is often a color mourning and death, as well as that of royalty.
Browns. Brown is a predominantly male color, and men often claim it as their favorite color. It is a neutral and earthy color that symbolizes home and comfort, as well as all things primitive, such as nature, trees, wood, and soil. On the positive side, its psychological traits are those of authenticity, the genuine, conservativeness, humility, friendship, stability, simplicity, security, reliability, somberness, sobriety, usefulness, functionality, practicality, familiarity, and understated prosperity. On the negative side, it is associated with sadness, nostalgia, dullness, dirt/filth, poverty, withdrawal from others, hermit-like behaviors, boorishness, anachronism, crudeness, roughness, and lack of emotion. In India it is the color of mourning.
Grays. Because gray is not black or white, it is the perfect neutral color to support all other colors and the psychological traits associated with them. On the positive side, gray's properties are those of neutrality, practicality, independence, self-reliance, exclusiveness, and timelessness. On the negative side, gray's neutrality can turn into indecisiveness, evasion, non-commitment, middle-of-the-road attitudes and opinions, lack of involvement, loneliness, boredom, depression, lack of direction, inability to fit in, and indifference. Gray is also negatively associated with death and old age.
Whites. White is the opposite of black. It is the absence of color in pigment and the combination of all colors in light. The human eye can distinguish hundreds of shades of white. In healing with light, it is the color used to alleviate shock and despair and to offer up protection. On the positive side, white represents purity, innocence, heaven, peace, truth, honesty, simplicity, openness, candor, clarity, contrast, and all things uncluttered and uncomplicated. On the negative side, white represents conservativeness, isolation, sterility, coldness, clinicism, fear, cowardice, and lack of imagination. It is the stereotypical color of the virginal bride in Western culture. In China and some other countries, white is the color of death and mourning.
Blacks. Black is the opposite of white. It is the absence of color in light and the combination of all colors in pigment. It can be used in contrast with any color and that color's psychological traits. Black is a passive and mysterious color that can be either comforting or frightening. On the positive side, black is associated with authority, power, riches, elegance, boldness, sobriety, practicality, class, and formality. On the negative side, black is associated with death, fear, mourning, darkness, secrecy, seriousness, evil, anonymity, anger, sadness, guilt, remorse, unhappiness, corporate mentality, and the inability to change and grow as a person. Cross-culturally, black elicits a greater negative response than all other colors.
This article last updated: 10/26/2015.