If you walk into a room or open a webpage, your brain will process the colors1https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131219102759.htm before any words or shapes. We are walking through a world of color, receiving a constant subconscious stream of emotional signals and information.
In this post, you’ll learn how to decode how different colors impact you and learn to strategically use colors in your wardrobe, home, and business to your advantage.
What is Color Psychology?
Color psychology is the study of how different colors impact your emotions and behavior. It’s a field that affects us daily. For example, the color of your shirt can affect both your mood and how others might perceive you.
What color should you wear on a date versus a job interview? What colors should you put in your marketing campaign? How is the color of your home affecting you?
Read on to answer all these questions and learn how to optimize your usage of colors in your own life.
How Different Colors Affect You
We have learned since Goethe’s days that each color impacts you based on a combination of three things:
- The innate psychology of that color shared across cultures2https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620948810 (likely derived from how the color appears in nature).
- The cultural associations of that color. For example, In America, green often means luck, and in China, wearing a “green hat3https://www.theworldofchinese.com/2019/07/a-cuckolds-cap/” implies infidelity.
- Your personal connection to colors. For example, if you love your grandparents and the inside of their house was painted orange throughout your childhood, you may have a pleasant personal association with the color.
So there is no exact science for each color, but we can make some guesses based on human universals. Below are some of the psychological and cultural qualities of each color.
How You Can Apply Color Psychology to Your Life
Knowing the essential quality of each color is a great start. But now, let’s dive deeper to learn how to apply what you know about the colors.
The color psychology of what to wear
The colors you choose for your outfit each day will affect your mood, behavior, and how others perceive you. Below is a cheat sheet of when to wear each color.
This is the color of truth and wisdom. It also has a calming effect linked to lowered blood pressure and heart rate4https://www.travelodge.co.uk/press-centre/press-releases/SECRET-GOOD-NIGHT%E2%80%99S-SLUMBER-SLEEP-BLUE-BEDROOM. It’s also the most stable color.
Blue is the reliable sky and the calming sea. Blue is a great color to counteract the tension if you want to center yourself or provide a balancing presence for any social drama.
Blue is also a crowd-pleaser since it is most frequently voted as people’s favorite color.
This is the color of aggression and passion—great for a first date but not for the office. Seeing red also increases your strength5https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0022599, metabolism, and blood pressure, which is why it’s used for stop signs and fire engines.
People across cultures associate red with love2https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620948810. And sex! People perceive females as more sexually attractive6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20942361/ when they wear red blush and lipstick. These makeup styles emulate the body’s reaction to sexual arousal, cardiac health, and high estrogen levels.
The color of the sun is the happiest of all colors and stimulates joy and optimism. Yellow also grabs attention, which makes it great for traffic signs.
Yellow clothes are an excellent option for casual summerwear; however, yellow is considered an unstable color, so it can be over-energizing for the office and make the wearer look weak.
This color denotes freshness, safety, and harmony. Green is restful on the eyes and produces the least amount of eyestrain, reminding people of leaves and trees. Green is always a solid clothing choice if you’d like to create a grounding and restorative vibe.
It’s also associated with money, luck, and the “go” signal for a traffic light—all great characteristics in the workplace.
Like the trunk of a tree, brown conjures up feelings of strength and stability. But at the same time, brown can seem boring and safe. It’s a great color to wear if you want to feel sturdy and play it safe, but it can be hard to stand out in brown.
Brown is also seen as masculine. Wearing a chocolate brown suit can give you credibility if you’re a woman in a predominantly male workplace.
Orange evokes stimulation, vibrancy, and enthusiasm. Orange is the color of fire, citrus fruit, and safety vests.
Orange is also the color of autumn—pumpkins, squash, and fall leaves, and can be associated with melancholy. Though more peachy shades of orange conjure up the warmth.
It’s not as aggressive as red but can catch attention, so while a good color for sporty garb, it’s best to wear it in moderation.
Orange is also not a crowd favorite and is most commonly marked as people’s least favorite color.
Purple reminds people of royalty and luxury. Because it’s a color not often found in nature, only royalty used to be able to afford purple dye7https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/science/the-color-of-royalty-bestowed-by-science-and-snails.html.
Statistically, males tend to avoid wearing8https://www.joehallock.com/edu/COM498/preferences.html purple, so it has stronger gendered connotations than most colors.
It’s also the color of magic. The unnaturalness can make purple seem either mysterious or artificial. A purple scarf, tie, or purse can be a nice, subtle addition to any outfit, giving some extra pzazz and mystique.
We associate pink with youth, innocence, and childhood sweetness. It can also represent femininity, nurturance, and softness. In nature, we find pink color in flowers.
Pink is Barbie and Victoria’s Secret, creating an unlikely pair out of youthful innocence and romance. A pink feminine garment can help you feel either sweet or seductive.
Hot pink has different associations and can feel bold, exciting, and powerful. A hot pink accessory makes a great statement piece to add flare to your outfit.
This color is associated with cleanliness, perfection, freshness, and simplicity.
White is always a safe choice for a shirt or scarf. Wearing all white is a statement of purity, which can have a hopeful feeling but is not best for the workplace.
This power color can convey feelings of mystery and seriousness. It is also considered elegant and has a thinning effect. (And who doesn’t love that?) Black can mean authority and prestige, so if you want to be treated seriously, the typical black suit with a splash of green or blue works wonders.
Black is also associated with sadness2https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797620948810 and solemnity. The color of death, funerals, and ravens. It’s the color worn in the thick of a depressed, cloudy winter when life feels devoid of color. It’s the color championed by goths, punk rockers, and metalheads, and it carries a hint of angst, pain, and cynicism. When you feel in touch with your darker corners, black can be a solid option to express yourself.
Sports teams that wear black receive the most penalties9https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-3522.214.171.124 due to how the referees perceive them and how they perceive themselves. Black makes an excellent color for a villain. And if you want to channel your inner badass, donning a black leather jacket is a good start.
Gray is neutral and balanced. It’s the color of concrete and can give an urban aesthetic.
But gray is also lifeless, depressed, and blah. It can imply that people are passive, uninvolved, and lack energy. If you like wearing gray, pairing it with a brighter color, such as blue, can help offset the negative connotations.
Color psychology and home design
Can you guess why 77% of chain restaurants10https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1170&context=honors have the color red in their logo?
As a hint, it’s not to make you feel calm and satiated. Actually, the color red can quicken breathing, increase heart rate, and make you hungrier.
Colors impact our moods and our physiological responses. The color of a room dictates the ambiance it casts.
When we think about interior design and what color to make each room, the choices matter.
To optimize your sleep, go for a blue bedroom.
A study of 2,000 homes found that people who sleep in blue rooms get more sleep4https://www.travelodge.co.uk/press-centre/press-releases/SECRET-GOOD-NIGHT%E2%80%99S-SLUMBER-SLEEP-BLUE-BEDROOM than in other colored rooms. Here’s how several color bedrooms fared in average hours of sleep per night:
- Blue—7 hours 52 minutes
- Yellow—7 hours 40 minutes
- Green—7 hours 36 minutes
- Silver—7 hours 33 minutes
- Orange—7 hours 28 minutes
- Gray–6 hours 12 minutes
- Brown—6 hours 5 minutes
- Purple—5 hours 56 minutes
Green is an excellent pick to support your child’s learning and focus.
This study showed that when reading through a green filter11https://neurosciencenews.com/color-filter-dyslexia-10052/, dyslexic kids were able to read faster.
Green is the color of nature and is inherently soothing and restorative. This research study showed that when given a task that required a steady attention span, participants performed notably better12https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494415000328 when taking short breaks to look at green roofs versus concrete roofs.
There are many ways to design a living room, but one good pick is soft yellow.
Wax also recommends gray or beige if you want a “quieter color palette” that you can spruce up with accent colors. If you want a spark of passion, you can use a red pillow, or for a wave of cool you add a blue painting.
Because orange is known to be stimulating, revitalizing, and enthusiastic, it’s an excellent pick for a workout room. As a bonus, some cultures believe the color orange promotes lung health13https://www.color-meanings.com/7-best-colors-healing/.
For an office, opt for blue and green. In 1999, researchers at Creighton University found that colors significantly influence employees’ emotions and efficiency. Workers in blue offices felt the most centered, calm, and hopeful toward their work.
Since blue can lower heart rates and green reduces anxiety and is associated with money, combining blue and green is the best combo for your productive zone.
If you’d like more inspiration, here’s an article exploring more office decor ideas.
Color psychology and mental health
For folks interested in personal development, there is a branch of healing called chromotherapy, also known as color therapy.
Here’s how WebMD14https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-color-psychology describes it: “Every color on the visible light spectrum has a unique wavelength and vibration. These wavelengths produce electrical impulses or fields of energy that affect the human body.” In other words, being in the presence of particular colors can improve our mental and physiological health.
One interesting note is that color therapy can work even if your eyes are shut, as the colored light wavelengths can impact you through your skin15https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1297510/.
One such example of this phenomenon is the use of blue-green lights on the skin of babies with pre-natal jaundice16https://med.stanford.edu/newborns/professional-education/jaundice-and-phototherapy/faqs-about-phototherapy.html, which helps purify the baby’s blood and heal their jaundice.
Color therapy has also proven effective17https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S096522991930915X?via%3Dihub in helping with insomnia, diabetes, hyperacidity, psychiatric illnesses, dengue fever, hypertension, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), immunity, cutaneous wound healing, chronic joint disorders, and inflammation.
Here are a few specific ways you can harness the power of color for your own well-being.
Blue lights and work
Studies18https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4989256/#:~:text=Exposure%20to%20blue%20light%20in,delay%20of%20the%20circadian%20rhythm. have shown that when blue-enriched light replaced white lights in an office setting for four weeks, participants saw an increase in alertness, performance, mood, and concentration.
If you want to improve your focus, look to blue. Blue walls, blue light, blue furniture.
Green glasses and anxiety
Dr. Padma Gulur of Duke University gave different colored eyeglasses19https://www.asahq.org/about-asa/newsroom/news-releases/2022/10/green-eyeglasses-reduce-pain-related-anxiety-in-fibromyalgia-patients-study-shows to patients undergoing extreme pain—the glasses were clear, blue, and green.
The clear and blue glasses did not affect the patient’s recovery. And while the green glasses didn’t reduce the patient’s pain, they were four times more likely to reduce anxiety in the patients. Most patients who wore the green eyeglasses for the experiment asked to keep them!
If you struggle with anxiety, especially as it relates to physical pain, consider incorporating green into your life.
Pink softens aggression
This study20https://isom.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/JOM_1979_08_4_01_Tranquilizing_Effect_of_Color_Reduces_Aggressive-.pdf showed pink to decrease muscle strength and aggression. A test subject would hold their arms out straight, while a lab-assistant of equal strength would push the subject’s arms down. The subject lost strength when there was a bright pink piece of paper in front of the subject’s eyes. This remained true compared to subjects with no paper to look at as well as subjects with blue paper to look at. These results were consistent for 151/153 test subjects.
Further, another research team painted a prison holding-cell pink20https://isom.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/JOM_1979_08_4_01_Tranquilizing_Effect_of_Color_Reduces_Aggressive-.pdf. Data showed that inmate violence decreased when they were in the pink room for 15 minutes, and the calming effects lasted for 30 minutes after they left the room.
If you’d like to induce calm and lessen aggression, then think about pink.
Red light and sleep
Different color lights, especially blue lights, can impact your melatonin release and circadian rhythms, which can screw up your sleep.
But this study suggests21https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3499892/ that if you want to use light at night, then the best color is red.
Colors and pills
Researchers tested how effective different types of pills22https://www.mdpi.com/2226-4787/10/4/82 were, depending on the color of the pill.
By now, you should not be surprised that the color did make a difference! Here’s what they found:
- When the pill was a stimulant, its effects were more pronounced when the pill was red.
- White pills were the most effective pain relievers.
- For anti-anxiety pills, blue and white had the most significant effect.
- And for hallucinogens, red and yellow pills caused the most potent experience.
In this case, it’s likely that the placebo effect is at play and that people’s perceptions of what colors of drugs should be impacted the efficacy of those drugs.
The next time you invest in vitamins or anti-inflammatories, consider that the color of the pill makes a difference.
Color psychology for marketing and branding
When people make snap decisions about purchasing a product, up to 90% of their product assessment is based on color. Color also increases brand recognition by 80%.
Further, research shows23https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/00251740610673332/full/html that seeing specific colors can “increase or decrease appetite, enhance mood, calm down customers, and reduce [the] perception of waiting time.”
So if you are creating a brand, e-commerce marketing campaign, or product, your chosen color scheme is significant.
There are a few key considerations when considering colors for your brand, product, or marketing.
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If you are running a sale, use red for pricing. As marketing expert Sarah Levinger writes: “Thanks to McDonald’s, Amazon, & the human brain, consumers have been trained to understand that red = discount. Defaulting red will draw your customer’s eye & help them make decisions faster.”
Research shows that one of the most critical aspects of a logo or brand image color is how appropriate the colors seem24https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1470593106061263, given the product/service and its market.
If you sell water bottles, and your brand coloring is yellow (with no blue), this may appear off to consumers, given the branding zeitgeist of the water bottle market.
Stand out from the crowd
Your brain is likelier to notice and remember stimuli that stand out in isolation. This is called the Von Restorff Effect. Practically speaking, it means that the red tomato below stands out from the green bunch.
And you’re also more likely to remember the products or brands whose colors stand out in isolation.
As another example, which Heavy Metal band do you notice first in the following lineup?
The balancing act for brands then becomes how to seem congruous with their customers’ expectations while standing out from the crowd.
Brands and associations
Smart brands pick their colors based on color psychology and pre-existing cultural associations. But once a brand builds an audience, its logo’s color scheme begins to inform the public’s perception of those colors.
For example, when McDonald’s launched its logo years ago, they understood that the color evoked joy and optimism. But now, if you brand your logo yellow, you are still accessing the joy and optimism psychologically linked to the color. Still, you are also invoking all of the associations that McDonald’s has bled into the color yellow.
So when thinking about how to color your brand, it’s worth considering which major brands use which colors because those brands lay dormant in the associative recesses of the client’s subconscious. Check out the chart below to see some of the major brand associations of each color.
Years ago, Google tested over 40 shades of blue to determine the best text font color to use on the results page. This decision alone increased their yearly ad revenue25https://www.businessinsider.com/google-tests-black-links-instead-of-blue-links-in-search-results-2016-5 by $200 million! Color matters.
If you can, determine what color scheme is appropriate for your brand by either A/B testing or getting user feedback. This way, you can strike the right balance between congruity and standing out.
Your best bet would be to get customer feedback on what colors seem appropriate for your brand and market.
History of Color Psychology
While using colors for marketing and therapeutic reasons is a new and burgeoning field, humans have intuitively understood that different colors affect us differently since the beginning of visual art.
Egyptians were harnessing colors from their natural environment to make art 7,000 years ago26https://www.worldhistory.org/article/999/color-in-ancient-egypt/. And the meanings they derived from each color had very much to do with how that color appeared in both nature and their society.
For example, the Egyptians colored their deities gold—a rare and precious metal.
And blue, made from copper and iron oxides, symbolized life in Egyptian art. This is no surprise, given the color of their great life source, the Nile River.
The Eye of Horus26https://www.worldhistory.org/article/999/color-in-ancient-egypt/ comes from a myth27https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eye-of-Horus where the Falcon God Horus loses their eye; then the Goddess Hathor miraculously restores it. Hence the symbol has come to mean healing and restoration.
Fast forward a few millennia to the 1660s when Sir Isaac Newton28https://library.si.edu/exhibition/color-in-a-new-light/science#:~:text=London%2C%201704,make%20up%20the%20visible%20spectrum. passed light through a prism for the first time and identified the colors that make up the visible light spectrum: ROYGBIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
Then in 1810, poet, scientist, and novelist Johann von Wolfgang Goethe wrote The Theory of Colors29https://mitpress.mit.edu/9780262570213/theory-of-colours/. He ventured his personal theories on each color’s psychological and emotional meaning. And here, he planted the seeds for color psychology to sprout in centuries to come.
Frequently Asked Questions About Color Psychology
Each color can trigger a range of emotional responses. But some common triggers for each color are blue and stability, red and passion, yellow and optimism, green and healing, orange and energy, purple and luxury, and pink and softness.
The color black is most strongly associated with power. It is also associated with mystery, elegance, sadness, death, and evil.
Red is the most aggressive color. Seeing red increases metabolism and raises blood pressure. Red is also linked to anger and passion.
Orange is the most stimulating color. It is known to evoke stimulation, enthusiasm, optimism, and liveliness. Think about the stimulating smell of a freshly peeled orange.
Each color can set a variety of moods, but here are some common moods for each color: blue/tranquility, red/passion, yellow/happiness, green/hope, black/mystery, purple/luxury, brown/reliability, orange/fun, white/purity, and gray/practicality.
Color can affect mood! Color influences human behavior, emotions, attention span, and concentration. The vividness/paleness of a color also changes the impact of that color.
Color psychology means we perceive colors in a way that impacts us mentally, emotionally, and physiologically. Each color’s impact depends on personal preferences and associations, cultural associations, and universal effects.
Color can cause physiological reactions. Color therapy has also proven effective in helping with insomnia, diabetes, hyperacidity, psychiatric illnesses, dengue fever, hypertension, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), immunity, cutaneous wound healing, chronic joint disorders, and inflammation.
The psychology of colors is more important than most people give it credit for. Our brains perceive colors before words or shapes. Regardless of your color preferences, the colors around you impact what you buy, what brands you like, and how you feel in your clothes and homes.
The origin of color psychology was in 1810 when poet, scientist, and novelist Johann von Wolfgang Goethe wrote a book called The Theory of Colors, where he ventured his personal theories on the emotional and psychological effects of color. And here, he planted the seeds for color psychology to sprout in centuries to come.
If you want to unleash your anger, red is your best bet. If your goal is to calm your anger, then pink is proven to have the most soothing effects on aggression.
Black is the most serious color. It is often used for formal wear and funerals because of its solemnity and seriousness.
Bringing Color Psychology Into Your Life
Colors are everywhere and are affecting you in ways seen and unseen. Remember some of the following tips to harness the power of color psychology.
- If you’ve got a hot date, opt for red
- Wearing black asks others to take you seriously, but it may also be intimidating
- Gray can feel uninspired and bland, so it’s good to spruce a gray outfit up with a splash of another color
- For your best night of sleep, paint your room the color blue
- Orange is a great exercise color because it’s stimulating
- Green can help with anxiety
- Red lights at night will help with your sleep
- Pink soothes aggression
- If you’re building a brand, balance out congruity with standing out
Best of luck with your color journey! And if you’d like to learn more about the psychology of clothes beyond just color, then this article is for you.
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