Color has long since evoked and influenced, painting people’s lives with emotion, with shades and responses that range from “feeling blue” to having a “sunny disposition” to being “green with envy,” “seeing red,” noticing the “darker side of life, being “pure as the driven snow” or viewing the world through “rose-colored glasses.”
Using color as a metaphor for the range of human experience is so common because people cannot escape the visual array that envelopes them, the varying wavelengths each color emits. As a result, color influences physical and emotional sensations, and in turn behaviors and moods.
While research in color psychology has been conducted for decades, the field surged during the 1950’s when the idea of subliminal advertising and consumer research gained attention. Researchers in the field of color psychology study the affect of color on human behavior in numerous areas such as crime reduction, advertising and marketing, and increasing performance across various environments such as workplaces, schools and medical settings.
Essentially where there is light there is a spectrum of color, some visible to the eye, some not, but all of it, unavoidably interacting with the human experience.
Faber Birren author of the book Color Psychology and Color Therapy (1950) a pioneer researcher in the field writes that although color therapy is (was) not highly respected in the medical literature “its (color) role in all forms of life is too evident to be ignored or denied.”
Yet despite a wide body of early research, the findings were weak or largely inconsistent, the result scientists now believe was because researchers didn’t take into account a color’s hue, brightness and saturation across the diversity of test subjects. One shade of red, for instance, might evoke an entirely different response in one person than another shade of red.
Color and Personality
Psychiatrists, Birren writes in his book, found that people often show strong preferences and reactions to colors, such as during the famed Rorschach inkblot test. An emotionally responsive person, for example, was generally open to the introduction of color, while an emotionally inhibited person tended to be shocked or embarrassed when color entered his inner world. A rigid, emotionally stiff person however, tended to remain neutral.
“In the main,” writes Birren, “persons who are or who attempted to be well-adjusted to the world and hence “outwardly integrated,” like colors in general and warm colors in particular. “Inwardly integrated persons may favor cool colors – and may be none too enthusiastic about them, or about any colors for that matter.”
According to Maria Rickers-Ovsiankina, a psychologist who studied personality and researcher Birren quoted in his book, people lean towards either the cold or the warm end of the color spectrum. Warm color people tend to be receptive and open to outside influences, suggested Rickers-Ovsiankina, to “submerge themselves readily in their social environment,” while cold color people tend to be split off from the outside world, detached, finding it “difficult to adapt themselves to new circumstances and express themselves freely.”
Yet creating such polarity might dilute the wide range of response people have to the vast shades of colors. One person, for instance, might associate red with Christmas; while another might sense danger.
Colors in the Workplace
In a study by Kwallek & Lewis, researchers found that after workers completed a business typing task their stress and anxiety scores were higher in a red office, while depression scores were higher in a blue office. In another of their studies, students felt that a white office was more appropriate and less distracting than a red or green office, although they had fewer errors on a clerical task in the red office.
Yet Stone and English, authors on the study, “Task Type, Posters, and Workplace Color on Mood, Satisfaction and Performance,” did not find a relationship between office color, mood and performance. They hypothesized that because red was more stimulating and blue more depressing or calming, that “if the task is boring or monotonous, a red environment may contribute more stimulation, increasing performance.” It turns out however, color had no direct impact on performance in their study, although subjects did perceive a blue office as more private.
Interestingly, a blue office did seem to affect how subjects rated the degree of difficulty or ease of their assigned task. If subjects were assigned a high demand task in a blue room, they rated the task as more difficult than it was; if they were assigned a low demand task in the blue room they rated the task easier than it was.
Stone and English theorized that because the blue office felt more “private” and secluded employees may have been more tuned into their task, while red tended to draw attention away from the task.
Shades of Color: Hue, Saturation and Brightness Impact Results
As Stone and English note, findings in color psychology research have been inconsistent. Andrew Elliot lead author on the 2007 report “Research on the Color of Red Shows Definite Impact on Achievement,” believes scientists didn’t account for hue, saturation and brightness, factors that can impact response to a color.
In his study, Elliot and his colleagues found that when people were exposed to a flash of red before a test they associated the color with mistakes and failures and in turn did poorly on the test. Red typically has been associated with marking errors on school papers.
Elliott and his colleagues chose a particular shade of red, accounting for hue, saturation and brightness, using high quality equipment to ensure the color output was to the exact specifications they wanted.
“Color clearly has aesthetic value, but it can also carry specific meaning and convey specific information,” says Elliot, suggesting that “Care must be taken in how red is used in achievement contexts,” and that the findings “illustrate how color can act as a subtle environmental cue that has important influences on behavior.”
Color and Mood
Birren writes that the “colors of the spectrum are to be associated with two moods, the warm, active, exciting qualities of red, and the cool, passive, calming qualities of blue, violet and green.” Colors with longer wavelengths such as red tend to be perceived as ‘warm’ colors and colors with a shorter-wavelength such as blue tend to be perceived as ‘cool. ‘ Blue–violet colors, tend to evoke sadness and fatigue; green, anger and confusion, red, vigor, anger or tension, and blue-green relaxation and self-effacement
Researchers involved in a 2010 study published in the Journal BMC Medical Research Methodology found people have a tendency to pick different colors to describe different moods, yet they pick other colors as their favorites regardless of their mood. Depressed or anxious people were more likely to associate their mood with the color gray, while happier people preferred yellow.
Color preference was generally the same regardless of whether the subject was depressed, anxious or healthy, with blue and yellow the most popular. Blue 28 on the color wheel was the favorite among healthy people (non-anxious, non-depressed) , while Blue 27 (a little darker than 28) was ranked first among people with anxiety and depression. Yellow 14 was picked as the color most likely to catch the eye.
When it came to correlating mood and color however, the groups diverged. Nearly four out of ten healthy subjects associated their mood with color, with Yellow 14 as their favorite. Nearly one in three anxious subjects and more than half the depressed, associated a shade of gray with their mood. Healthy volunteers however, only associated their mood with a shade of gray about 10 percent of the time.
Peter Whorwell, a gastroenterologist and lead researcher on the study suggests the findings may help doctors assess the moods of children and other patients who have trouble communicating verbally.”This is a way of measuring anxiety and depression which gets away from the use of language,” says Whorwell. “What is very interesting is that this might actually be a better way of capturing the patient’s mood than questions.”
Like Elliott, Whorwell found that when assigning a mood to colors, saturation matters. “A light blue is not associated with a poor mood, but a dark blue is,” he said. “The shade of color is more important than the color itself.”
As researchers continue to prove the connection between color, emotion, mood and behavior, color psychology and associated therapies will likely gain respect and use across a number of settings in society, with the goal to increase performance, reduce anxiety and depression, even lower crime rates.