Color Psychology: Does It Affect How You Feel?

How Colors Impact Moods, Feelings, and Behaviors

Do you feel anxious in a yellow room? Does the color blue make you feel calm and relaxed? Artists and interior designers have long believed that color can dramatically affect moods, feelings, and emotions. "Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions," the artist Pablo Picasso once remarked. 

Color is a powerful communication tool and can be used to signal action, influence mood, and even influence physiological reactions. Certain colors have been associated with physiological changes, including increased blood pressure, increased metabolism, and eyestrain.

This article discusses what color psychology means and how colors affect the mind and body. It also explores research on the effect of color and the psychological reactions people may experience.

What Is Color Psychology?

Color psychology is the study of how different colors affect human mood and behavior. It explores how colors can influence emotional responses, as well as how responses to color are affected by factors such as age and cultural background.

Different topics that are of interest in this area include:

  • The meanings of colors
  • How colors impact physiological responses
  • Emotional reactions to color
  • Factors that impact color preferences
  • Cultural differences in the meanings and associations of different colors
  • Whether colors can impact mental health
  • How colors can influence behaviors
  • Ways that colors can be utilized to promote well-being
  • How colors can be used to improve safety and design more optimal home and work environments

History of Color Psychology

The scientific exploration of color psychology is relatively new, but people have long been interested in the nature and impact of color. In ancient cultures, colors were often used to treat different conditions and influence emotions. They also played a role in different spiritual practices.

It was in 1666 that the English scientist Sir Isaac Newton discovered that when pure white light passes through a prism, it separates into all visible colors. Newton also found that each color is made up of a single wavelength and cannot be separated any further into other colors.

Further experiments demonstrated that light could be combined to form other colors. For example, red light mixed with yellow light creates an orange color. Some colors, such as green and magenta, cancel each other out when mixed, resulting in white light.

"Given the prevalence of color, one would expect color psychology to be a well-developed area," researchers Andrew Elliot and Markus Maier noted in a review of the existing research on the psychology of color. "Surprisingly, little theoretical or empirical work has been conducted to date on color's influence on psychological functioning, and the work that has been done has been driven mostly by practical concerns, not scientific rigor."

Despite the general lack of research in this area, color psychology has become a hot topic in marketing, art, design, and other areas.

Much of the evidence in this emerging area is anecdotal at best, but researchers and experts have made a few important discoveries and observations about the psychology of color and its effect on moods, feelings, and behaviors.

The Psychological Effects of Color

Why is color such a powerful force in our lives? What effects can it have on our bodies and minds? While perceptions of color are somewhat subjective, some color effects have universal meanings.

Colors in the red area of the color spectrum are known as warm colors and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility.

Colors on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool colors and include blue, purple, and green. These colors are often described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference.

Symbolic Color Meanings

Symbolic meanings that are often associated with different colors:

  • Red: Passion, excitement, love
  • Pink: Soft, reserved, earthy
  • Purple: Mysterious, noble, glamorous
  • Blue: Wisdom, hope, reason, peace
  • Green: Nature, growth, freshness
  • Yellow: Hope, joy, danger
  • Orange: Warmth, kindness, joy
  • White: Truth, indifference
  • Black: Noble, mysterious, cold

One 2020 study that surveyed the emotional associations of 4,598 people from 30 different countries found that people commonly associate certain colors with specific emotions. According to the study results:

  • Black: 51% of respondents associated black with sadness
  • White: 43% of people associated white with relief
  • Red: 68% associated red with love
  • Blue: 35% linked blue to feelings of relief 
  • Green: 39% linked green to contentment
  • Yellow: 52% felt that yellow means joy
  • Purple: 25% reported they associated purple with pleasure
  • Brown: 36% linked brown to disgust
  • Orange: 44% associated orange with joy
  • Pink: 50% linked pink with love

The study's researchers suggested that such results indicated that color-emotion associations appear to have universal qualities. These shared meanings may play an essential role in aiding communication.

Your feelings about color are often deeply personal and rooted in your own experience or culture. For example, while the color white is used in many Western countries to represent purity and innocence, it is seen as a symbol of mourning in many Eastern countries.

Color Psychology as Therapy

Several ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese, practiced chromotherapy, or the use of colors to heal. Chromotherapy is sometimes referred to as light therapy or colorology.

Colorology is still used today as a holistic or alternative treatment. In this treatment:

  • Red is used to stimulate the body and mind and to increase circulation.
  • Yellow is thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body.
  • Orange is used to heal the lungs and to increase energy levels.
  • Blue is believed to soothe illnesses and treat pain.
  • Indigo shades are thought to alleviate skin problems.

While more research is needed, a 2020 study suggested that chromotherapy may be an effective way to help combat feelings of compassion fatigue and post-traumatic stress in intensive care unit nurses.

Modern Research on Color Psychology

Most psychologists view color therapy with skepticism and point out that the supposed effects of color are often grossly exaggerated. Colors also have different meanings in different cultures.

However, the mood-altering effects of color may only be temporary. A blue room may initially cause feelings of calm, but the effect dissipates after a short period of time.

However, existing research has found that color can impact people in a variety of surprising ways:

  • While-colored pills are associated with greater pain relief., while red pills are associated with having greater stimulant properties. 
  • Red causes people to react with greater speed and force, something that might be helpful during athletic activities according to researchers.
  • Black-uniformed players are more likely to receive penalties in competitive sporting events.

Additional Research Is Still Needed

Interest in the subject of color psychology is growing, but there remain several unanswered questions. How do color associations develop? How powerful is the influence of these associations on real-world behavior?

Can color be used to increase worker productivity or workplace safety? What colors have an impact on consumer behavior? Do certain personality types prefer specific colors? As researchers continue to explore such questions, we may soon learn more about color's impact on human psychology.

Zena O'Connor, a faculty member in the Department of Architecture, Design, and Planning at the University of Sydney, suggests that people should be wary of many of the claims they see about the psychology of color.

"Many of these claims lack substantiation in terms of empirical support, exhibit fundamental flaws (such as causal oversimplification and subjective validation), and may include factoids presented as facts," O'Connor explains. "In addition, such claims often refer to outdated research without referring to current research findings."

Recap

More research is needed to understand the mental and physical effects of color. Universal associations may exist, but many other factors, including personal preferences and individual experiences, also play an important role in your unique emotional and behavioral response.

Color Can Influence Performance

Studies have also shown that certain colors can have an impact on performance. No one likes to see a graded test covered in red ink, but one study found that seeing the color red before taking an exam actually hurt test performance.

While the color red is often described as threatening, arousing or exciting, many previous studies on the impact of the color red have been largely inconclusive. The study found, however, that exposing students to the color red prior to an exam has been shown to have a negative impact on test performance.

In the first of the six experiments described in the study, 71 U.S. colleges students were presented with a participant number colored either red, green or black prior to taking a five-minute test.

The results revealed that students who were presented with the red number before taking the test scored more than 20% lower than those presented with the green and black numbers.

Color and Consumer Purchases

Color psychology suggests that various shades can have various effects, from boosting our moods to causing anxiety. But could the color of the products you purchase ever say something about your personality? For example, could the color of the car you buy somehow relate to some underlying personality traits or quirks?

When buying items, your color preferences might say something about the image you are trying to project. Color preferences, from the clothes you wear to the car you drive, can sometimes make a statement about how we want other people to perceive us. Other factors, such as age and gender, can also influence our color choices.

  • White: As many of our readers have suggested, the color white can feel fresh and clean. The color is often used to evoke a sense of youth and modernity. 
  • Black: Our readers often describe black as a "powerful" color, which might be the reason why black is the most popular color for luxury vehicles. People often describe the color as sexy, powerful, and mysterious.
  • Silver: It's the third most popular vehicle color and is linked to a sense of innovation and modernity. High-tech products are often silver, so the color is often seen as new, modern, and cutting-edge.
  • Red: Red is a bold, attention-getting color, so preferring this type of car might mean you want to project an image of power, action, and confidence.
  • Blue: People often describe blue as the color of stability and safety. Driving a blue car or SUV might indicate that you are dependable and trustworthy.
  • Yellow: According to the experts, driving a yellow vehicle might mean you are a happy person in general and perhaps a bit more willing than the average person to take risks.
  • Gray: The experts suggest that people who drive gray cars don't want to stand out and instead prefer something more subtle.

Of course, our color selections are often influenced by price, selection, and other practical concerns. Not only that, but color preferences can also change over time.

A person might prefer brighter, more attention-getting colors when they are younger, but find themselves drawn to more traditional colors as they grow older. The personality of the buyer can play an important role in color selection, but buyers are often heavily influenced by factors such as price as well as availability.

For example, purchasing a white vehicle might be less about wanting people to think that you are young and modern and more about the climate you live in; people who live in hot climates typically prefer light-colored vehicles over dark ones.

A Word From Verywell

Color can play an important role in conveying information, creating certain moods, and even influencing the decisions people make. Color preferences also exert an influence on the objects people choose to purchase, the clothes they wear, and the way they adorn their environments.

People often select objects in colors that evoke certain moods or feelings, such as selecting a car color that seems sporty, futuristic, sleek, or trustworthy. Room colors can also be used to evoke specific moods, such as painting a bedroom a soft green to create a peaceful mood.

So what's the bottom line? Experts have found that while color can have an influence on how we feel and act, these effects are subject to personal, cultural, and situational factors. More scientific research is needed to gain a better understanding of color psychology.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.