Introduction to Color Psychology

The study and application of colour psychology is based on the premise that specific colours arouse predictable emotional and physical reactions, and even affect seemingly rational judgement. Thus, by selecting specific colours, a specific desired reaction can be evoked.

Some reactions, which can be culture-specific, are rooted in colour symbolism, where a given colour is strongly associated with an idea or action. For example, while red is so strongly linked with good fortune in China that it is used at weddings, western symbolism tends much more toward strong active emotions and sudden action (stop! buy!). In contrast, western wedding virginal white becomes the undyed colour of mourning and death in several other cultures. A recently-discovered association is that women seem to prefer pink shades over others; while a similar association for blue was not found for men (Hurlbert, Ling, 2007).

More universal is colour association which has arisen from the natural environment. Warm greens and browns, used commonly in sunrooms, tend generally to be associated with calmness and growing things, while yellow-greens evoke ideas of sickness. Warm yellows suggest summer sunlight and warmth, and thus are often used in kitchens; while soft sky and twilight blues evoke relaxation and are popular bedroom and ensuite bathroom colours.

Artists have long intuitively understood these associations. Seeking to open another window on the hidden mind, modern pychological practice unites the artistic world with colour and shape theory to evolve a diagnostic and therapeutic art therapy.

A curious short-term physical effect of male exposure to the colour pink is a slight but measurable loss of strength (Schwartz et al, 1983).

Even the most determined objective judgement may be affected by colour. Ever since the 2004 Athens Olympics it has been known that in such combatitive disciplines as wrestling or tae kwan do, athletes in red uniforms tended to outperform athletes in blue uniforms. It was originally assumed that it was the athlete who benefitted from the colour association with a more aggressive colour. However, a 2008 study finds that referees themselves may actually be subconsciously influenced by the colour of an athlete’s uniform. In the study, experienced referees were shown clips from a tae kwan do bout. Unknown to them, several of the clips were absolutely identical except that the uniform colour had been digitally switched. The referees consistently gave competitors in red uniforms an average of 13 percent more points (Hagemann et al, 2008). To try to balance out findings such as this one, tae kwan do associations are currently working toward an electronic scoring system similar to that used in fencing.

Modern marketing uses a variant of operant conditioning to evolve these kinds of associations into very nearly a colour “branding”. While the various ecological groups quickly tagged “green” for their own – and, because of the natural association, found it very easy to do so – consider Coca-Cola red (drawing, not coincidentally, on the political Republican red with its undertones of family and security) vs. Pepsi-Cola electric blue (“the Pepsi generation”) for one ongoing example of a colour-branded product head-to-head marketing war.

Hagemann N, Strauss B, Lei[ss]ing J. (2008) Seeing red. Psychological Science August: in press.

Hill RA, Barton RA. (2005). Red enhances human performance in contests. Nature 435:293.

Hurlbert AC, Ling Y. (2007) Biological components of sex differences in color preference. Cur Biol 17:623-5.

Schwartz PL, Harrop PF, Love TW, Marchand JR, Read CJ. (1983) The color pink and muscle strength. NZ Med J 9(740):740-1.