The study of how colors impact us in both conscious and unconscious ways is fascinating–at least to a psychology geek like myself. Did you know that studies have shown that people taking a “hot-colored” (e.g., red, orange) placebo pill felt more stimulated, and those taking a “cool-colored” one (e.g., blue, green), felt more sedate or depressed? Similarly, we may feel a certain way when looking at a painting made up of hot colors versus cool colors or of bright versus dull colors. These effects are mainly due to our expectations. In other words, we associate various colors with certain states and experiences. These expectations come from a mix of culture, biology, and individual differences.
In art, fashion, advertising, and architecture, color is often used symbolically to convey or stimulate feelings or moods. Different cultures have different associations with particular colors; also, this symbolism can change over time and varies in different contexts. For instance, in the 1800s and early 1900s, pink was considered a masculine color, and blue, feminine; however, this was not universally true, as the marketing of children’s clothes favored different colors in different parts of the United States in the early 20th Century. These days in American and European cultures, pink is generally considered a feminine hue. In many Western cultures, red is associated with passion or danger. In China, red is traditionally a color meaning good luck or happiness and is often used in weddings and other celebrations. Yellow is a color that many connect to happiness and sunshine in various cultures; however, it can also have the more negative connotation of cowardice in the United States (e.g., to be “yellow bellied,” a term that comes from cowboy culture and refers to birds with a yellow bellied, as birds may be seen as timid and easily startled).
The color black has a complex impact on many. In the late 1800s, if a young Western woman was wearing black clothing, people would assume that someone had died and that she was in mourning. Today, we see women wearing black all the time and typically don’t associate it with death or mourning. Despite the more universal use of black in fashion, there are still some longstanding associations we have with it. Black is the color of night and lack of sunlight. Many children and some adults are afraid of the dark. Evolutionarily, we have been more vulnerable to attack by enemies or predators in the dark, as it is harder to see them coming and we can’t rely as much on vision to allow us to fight back or escape. Thus, black can have associations with fear, death, or danger in some contexts.
Environmental Psychology and Color
Color is an important factor in advertising, architecture, and interior design. However, as the impact of color is not universal, the use of specific colors to generate specific feelings or reactions is not always that reliable. That said, colors can play a fairly substantial role in purchases and branding. For example, research has show that the vast majority of consumers make instant judgments about how they perceive a product in terms of things like the product’s “personality” (e.g., the ruggedness of a motorcycle or piece of hardware) based on color.
Color has an important place in human-made environments. Faber Birren, considered the father of applied color psychology, was the first to establish the profession of color consultant in 1936. The work of Birren and others led to the thoughtful use of color in architecture and interior design in various environments to stimulate certain feelings and behaviors and inhibit others. For example, a goal in many institutional environments (e.g., prisons, hospitals) is to promote calm or focus and discourage overstimulation and agitation: In these settings, a good designer would use calming or muted colors, monochromatic schemes, or “weak” color contrasts. Specific colors are chosen for their associations: The color green may be used to promote calm and balance (so may be appropriate in a nursing home or jail), whereas white may be used to express sterility and neutrality, cleanliness and purity or spaciousness (and thus may be more fitting in an operating room or art gallery). Conversely, bright or strong colors and multicolored schemes would be used in environments where stimulation is the aim, such as a bar or a kindergarten classroom.