Do you feel anxious in a yellow room? Does the color blue make you feel calm and relaxed? Artists and interior designers have long understood how color can dramatically affect moods, feelings, and emotions. It is a powerful communication tool and can be used to signal action, influence mood, and cause physiological reactions. Certain colors have been associated with increased blood pressure, increased metabolism, and eyestrain.
"Given the prevalence of color, one would expect color psychology to be a well-developed area," note researchers Andrew Elliot and Markus Maier. "Surprisingly, little theoretical or empirical work has been conducted to date on the influence of color on psychological functioning, 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.
Of course, 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.
Why is color such a powerful force in our lives? What effects can it have on our bodies and minds? Continue reading to further explore the history of color including how it's used, the effects it may have, and some of the most recent research on color psychology.
What Is Color?
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 yellow and purple, 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. Marion Boddy-Evans, About.com's Guide to Painting, has an excellent overview of color theory basics including how different colors can be mixed.
The Psychological Effects of Color
While perceptions of color are somewhat subjective, there are some color effects that have universal meaning. Colors in the red area of the color spectrum are known as warm colors and include red, orange and yellow. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility.
Colors on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool colors and include blue, purple and green. These colors are often described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference.
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 colourology and is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment.
In this treatment:
- Red was used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation.
- Yellow was thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.
- Orange was used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.
- Blue was believed to soothe illnesses and treat pain.
- Indigo shades were 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, the existing research has found that color can impact people in a variety of surprising ways:
- One study found that warm-colored placebo pills were reported as more effective than cool-colored placebo pills.
- Anecdotal evidence has suggested that installing blue-colored streetlights can lead to a reduction of crime in those areas.
- The temperature of the environment might play a role in color preference. People who are warm tend to list cool colors as their favorites, while people who are cold prefer warmer colors.
- Studies have also shown that certain colors can have an impact on performance. Exposing students to the color red prior to an exam has been shown to have a negative impact on test performance.
- More recently, researchers discovered that the color red causes people to react with greater speed and force, something that might prove useful during athletic activities.
- One study that looked at historical data found that sports teams dressed in mostly black uniforms are more likely to receive penalties and that students were more likely to associate negative qualities with a player wearing a black uniform.
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."
So what's the bottom line? Experts have found that while color can have an influence on how we feel and act, these effects are subject to personal, cultural, and situational factors. More scientific research is needed to gain a better understanding of color psychology.
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Blue streetlights believed to prevent suicides, street crime. (2008, Dec. 11). The Seattle Times. Retrieved from http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2008494010_bluelight11.html
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Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2007). Color and psychological functioning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(5), 250-254.
Frank, M. G. & Gilovich, T. (1988). The dark side of self and social perception: Black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 74-83.
O'Connor, Z. (2011). Colour psychology and colour Therapy: Caveat emptor. Color Research & Application, 36 (3), p229-234.
Whitfield, T. W. A., & Wiltshire, T. J. (1990). Color psychology: A critical review. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs, 116(4), 387.