The Psychology of Color

On studying the psychology of color as effects on human emotions and human cognition

The Psychology of Color is primarily still within the realms of folk or commonsense psychology and has been widely associated with culture. The significance of color could well be related with particular cultures, emotions and situations although there are very few scientific experiments on color or a scientifically valid ‘color psychology’. The psychology of color studies the effects of colors on human feelings and behavior. It is usually believed that red makes people happy or fervent and yellow raises alertness, white is about purity and cleanliness, black evokes a sense of mystery, loss or anonymity.

Some of the earlier theories of color and its association with psychology could be traced back to Goethe who suggested that colors may have moral associations and tend to produce extreme emotional states such as blue produces tranquility and red creates aroused emotional states. Luscher, a Swiss psychologist suggested that individual personality traits could be associated with preferences for certain colors. However such tests have long been considered as unscientific and inaccurate and no general scientific consensus has been reached on the effects of colors on human emotions. Yet color theory and the supposed impact of colors have been widely recognized and applied in all facets of life from advertisements to interior designs.

Colors that are abundant in nature such as blue, green and brown have greater acceptability and blue being the color of the sky or perceived as color of water bodies seems to have a soothing protective effect and people associate blue with calm, tranquility and serenity. Green is the color of leaves and symbolizes new life, personal growth and change so is also a well accepted and positive color. Brown is a neutral color yet represents earthiness, depth and wholesomeness.

Natural colors are well accepted and universal simply because of their familiarity and this concept could well be used in colors for advertisements or products. Natural products should be sold in boxes or cans with natural colors or should represent the color of products. Thus lemon juice is best sold in a yellow or green colored container rather than a red one. In fact in case of advertisements and products, red cans are associated with cola as transparent bottles with blue labels are for mineral water and such already established consumer associations should be considered before launching products and advertisements. A completely black can of any drink could be considered as mysterious, dangerous or even poisonous and sales may be affected even if the product inside is pretty harmless. In fact for fizzy drinks or coffee or cocoa, brown or a mixture of black and brown could be more suitable than only black as the color of the containers. For selling beer or soda, containers or cans of neutral colors like beige, light brown and faded golden would be more appropriate.

In a similar manner websites should also enhance the spirit of the products or services offered with its unique colors. A site providing wedding services should have white or pink as its primary color and a site providing funeral services could have black or grey as the primary color. This is however culturally variant as events such as birth, death, marriage are represented with different colors in different societies. In some eastern societies, red represents celebration and marriage whereas in western societies, white is widely used in marriage. White is used as the color of death, sterility and loss in eastern societies whereas in the west, black is the color of mourning and loss. The use of colors in different cultures and societies may provide insights into the cultural concepts as white representing death in eastern societies may not only represent high levels of purity but also rebirth and transition to another form. Leaving one bodily condition for another as death is widely believed in the East may also be perceived as reason for celebration rather than mourning. Thus in general , it cn be interpreted that all celebrations are usually represented with white. Death in the west is associated with darkness, evil, end or loss and black as the concept of rebirth for a next stage of life is not present in western societies. This may be the core differentiation between materialistic and spiritualistic societies that provides insights into color psychology as well.

Moving on to the use of colors in practical life, psychology will have to study the impact of colors in humans more systematically and scientifically. There are some color experiments that relate to vision and perception although the main processes in color perception are:

  1. Attention – as measured with reaction time when a color is seen
  2. Association – as measured with preference for a particular color to represent particular events and situations
  3. Retention – as measured with prediction using memory and experience to define particular attributes of color

The properties of color comprising of hue, saturation and brightness tend to affect reaction time as strong colors like red and yellow can evoke the fastest reaction times and are attention getting colors. We are quickly attracted to red, yellow and orange although association of particular colors with particular events can lead to general preference for such colors. Thus red is generally preferred as an emergency color for dangers or warnings and in ambulance or fire services and using any other color will fail to produce a similar association. White is a strong color but may not be conspicuous or attention getting during the day. Thus color perception is not only dependent on attention drawing properties of color but also the association of colors with certain attributes due to our social or cultural knowledge. This can in a way evoke human emotions although the emotional aspect of color psychology should require a different kind of study. Retention is the last phase of color perception which in turn evokes reactions as from our memory we predict that certain colors have certain associative values and properties or represent certain established concepts, so red means love, blue means calm, white means peace or purity and so on.

The psychology of color should thus have two distinct branches –

1. The effects of color on human emotions – the emotional and cultural aspects of color psychology showing significance of color in evoking human emotions

2. The effects of color on human cognition and perception – the biological and physiological reactions to color involving the phases of attention, association and retention

Both these effects of color will have to be integrated in psychology to understand the real significance of color in shaping human reactions, thoughts, emotions and actions. These two distinct branches of color psychology should be included not only as a theoretical framework in the study of the psychology of color but also as a practical framework for applying color psychology in advertisements, products and services. We live in times when the visual medium has attained considerable significance with advertisements of products and messages featured on the internet, television, newspapers, billboards etc. The visual stimuli are an important aspect of modern life as we are bombarded with visual information and the role of color seems central to our visual experiences.

Thus color psychology should be comprehensively and scientifically studied and applied to all aspects of human enterprise, including businesses and education and both the branches of color psychology dealing with human emotions and human cognition/perception will have to be studied as an integral unit to understand the social, cultural, physiological, cognitive and emotional dimensions of the psychology of color.