What is Color Psychology?

color psychology

Posted October 2019 by Clifton Stamp, B.S. Psychology; M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling, M.A. English; 10 updates since. Reading time: 6 min. Reading level: Grade 8+. Questions on color psychology? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Color psychology isn’t completely new, but it has not been totally incorporated into paradigmatic psychology just yet.  It’s the study of how color affects behavior, mood, even our physiological processes. People have observed ways in which colors affect behavior for thousands of years, but it’s only been in the last century that psychology has been around to take notice. Amazingly enough, there’s no formalized school of thought in psychology that’s championed color psychology. The study of how color affects human behavior has yet to be formalized within research psychology. In fact, research into how color affects human behavior and emotions has been driven in many ways by marketing, interior design, advertising and sales research. After all, there are staggering amounts of wealth to be made by having a branding hit.

Much of what we assume to be true about the effects of color on behavior comes from marketing and sales analysis. While there are facts about such behavior, that information is geared solely toward behavior that’s quantified by sales, by website visits, by purchases and by consumer ratings. Regardless of how valid that research is, it has not been constructed with overall human behavior in mind. It is narrow and can answer questions about a commensurately narrow range of behaviors.

Unlike other areas covered by research, the study of color psychology is somewhat haphazard. It’s been dominated by anecdotal evidence, folklore and pop, frothy pseudo-studies from non-psychologists. There’s a reason for this. Sensitivity to color and color acuity can vary significantly from person to person, thus it is the perception of color that affects behavior.

In a sea of unverified observations, are there at least a few reasonably solid facts we can puzzle out?

Color Psychology and Color Symbolism

The brain gives a lot of processing power to visual information. About 25 percent of the brain’s computational might is devoted to vision, which is interpreted in the brain’s visual cortex. The neurology of vision is incredibly complex, but it’s safe to say that color vision is a critical part of it. Color vision begins with the activity of the cone cells in the retina. Humans have 3 types of cone cells, whose activity is based on light’s wavelength. The longer the wavelength of light, measured in nanometers, the closer to red we see that light. The shorter the wavelength yields more bluish light. In between are the 7 million other colors that our color vision delivers to us.

The effects of some colors on mood are fairly well-known. Some shades of yellow cause such vigorous activity in the cone cells as to be irritating. Blue light has been found to be stimulating and can increase attention. The cellular hyperactivity in the cones spreads into the visual cortex. This raises an interesting question. Is the activity levels of our visual  system connected to the brain’s perceptions of threats or benefits? Human culture is thick with color symbolism, but the meanings we assign to colors are completely dependent on our cultural context.

Note that there are many differences between color psychology and color symbolism. Color symbolism involves the associations people make between colors and their cultural meanings. Naturally, those meanings are dependent on a person’s culture and context. Consider the meanings and associations with the following:

Red. Red in western cultures symbolizes love, warnings, danger, anger and aggression. Exposure to the color red activates the amygdala, an area of the brain which can trigger the fight or flight response system. The amygdala is also responsible for aggressive behavior.

Green. Green symbolizes growth, health, jealousy, favor and compassion. It’s associated with wealth, relaxation and good fortune. The color that’s most visible to human beings is bright green.

Blue. Blue is a calm, peaceful color. It also can symbolize depression and sadness. Blue light has a powerful effect on human circadian rhythms. The blue light found in intense sunlight prevents the pineal gland from producing melatonin during the daytime, thus promoting wakefulness.

Yellow. Yellow is an energetic color, associated with rebirth, hope, and renewal. It’s also associated with cowardice in western societies. Yellow can be irritating has been known to prompt restlessness.

Orange. Orange is thought to be flamboyant, energetic, enthusiastic and attention-seeking. Orange is found between red and yellow on the visible light spectrum.  It is also viewed as a transitional color and associated with autumn.

Purple. Purple has the connotation of royalty, wisdom and wealth. In the past, the robes and symbols of office of the wealthy were made of purple-dyed cloth. Purple is the rarest of all-natural dyes and thus the most expensive. Violet has the shortest wavelength of all the visible colors.

Pink. Pink is associated with love, warmth, affection and sensitivity. Pink is one of the most calming colors. Detention facilities sometimes have pink-walled rooms for aggressive or acting-out inmates.

Black. Black is associated with mortality and death in western cultures. It’s also associated with evil, grief, fear and the unknown. In marketing, black is associated with sophistication, maturity and high tech. Black represents the absorption of all colors.

Silver: Silver is associated with sophistication, technology and modernity. Along with black, it does not occur on the spectrum.

White. In western cultures, white represents innocence, purity and faith, while in eastern cultures white symbolizes death and grief.

Color Psychology and Mood

One area that has been developed is the effect of the colors in white light and their effects on mood. In particular, researchers have begun to study the effects of blue light on alertness, circadian rhythms and sleep behavior. We know that the amount and intensity of sunlight has a profound effect on mental health, especially with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The amount of high energy visible blue light produced by devices like tablets and mobile phones has also come under scrutiny as potential disruptors of circadian rhythm. Researchers believe that high energy blue light stimulates the areas of the brain that regular circadian rhythm and wakefulness, thus promoting alertness. Light that falls toward the red end of the visible spectrum activates the pineal gland and stimulates the production of melatonin, which prompts healthy sleep.

As research continues, we will learn much more about the effects of color and light on human behavior.

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