Color Psychology

According to Britannica, the most important aspect of color in daily life is probably the one that is least defined and most variable. It involves aesthetic and psychological responses to color and influences art, fashion, commerce, and even physical and emotional sensations (Britannica: "color") . Before we go into details about color psychology it’s important to understand that the psychological perception of color is subjective, and only general comments about its characteristics and uses are going to be made.

The first step is to note that colors are not universal to all humans in all cultures. Some languages don’t have specific words for green, blue, yellow or orange. In a related example, Eskimos use 17 words for white as applied to different snow conditions, where in the Northwest United States there are only 4 or 5. Like color terminology, color harmony, color preferences, color symbolism, and other psychological aspects of color are culturally conditioned, and they vary considerably with both place and historical period (Britannica: "color"). Another example of cultural difference could be the colors that are associated with mourning. In the United States, black is associated, but in other cultures around the world colors like white, purple, and gold are used during the mourning period (Britannica: "color").

color symbolism is important in art, religion, politics, and ceremonials. Symbols that carry strong emotional connotations can affect color perceptions so that, for example, an apple or heart shaped figure cut from orange paper may seem to have a redder hue than a geometric figure cut from the same paper because of the specific psychological meaning that is associated with the shape (Britannica: "color").

Factors like age, mental health, and mood affect the colors we see. People who share distinct personal traits then to share color perceptions and preferences (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 176). For example, people with schizophrenia have been reported to have abnormal color perception and even very young people (who are learning to distinguish colors) usually show a preference for red or orange (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 168). Furthermore, it has even been suggested that specific colors can have a therapeutic effect on physical and mental disabilities (Britannica: "color").

A researcher named Gilbert Brighouse conducted a study where several hundred college students were tested to determine if their reaction times would differ depending on the color of light they were under. He found that the reactions of the students were 12% faster than normal under red light, while green light retarded their responses (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 144). By this thinking, it could be said that humans are more likely to respond quicker under bright light than under dim light. D. B. Harmon stated in 1944 that most living things tend to orient themselves toward light or toward brightness. Also, as the energy of stimulation goes up, response tendency goes with it. In his opinion, therefore, bright environments will condition the organism for what he calls avoidant (big-muscle) activity (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 144). This suggests (to Birren) that brilliance of light may hinder more sedentary tasks or mental activity. Birren concludes by stating, “Activities of a muscular nature are better performed in bright light and amid bright surroundings. Exacting mental and visual task are better performed with softer and deeper colors in the environment (though with ample illumination over the task) (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 144).

Birren, who I’ve referenced throughout this study, writes two very interesting sections in his book that relate to the psychological effects of red and blue. Birren writes about the much quoted work of Ludwig and Von Ries and their research regarding the growth of rats under red and blue light. The rats that grew under the blue light developed at the same pace as rats that grew under normal day light. However, the rats that grew under the red light started out slow, and then exceeded the weight of the blue light rats. Another researcher named Ellinger points out, “Following exclusion irradiation with red light, young mice eventually die, apparently due to vitamin deficiency.” (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 168)

In his notes about blue light, Birren states, “To some extent blue light is antagonistic to red. It is said to promote oxidation in the tissues and to retard hormonal activity. It has little effect upon the skin but is slightly germicidal. It would seem only logical that antiseptics meant to be applied to the skin should be blue, not red or brown, in order to assure the absorption of red radiation.” (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 128) Because I don’t have a background in science I am unable to identify the accuracy of Birren’s last statement. I think that this would be a good topic for future research if someone were so inclined to take it on. From this information, Birren notes that red will stimulate the autonomic nervous system, while blue will tend to relax it. The equilibrium of the body, pulse rate, heart action, respiration, nervous tension, and even digestion will all be affected by both red and blue light (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 147).

The last part of the color psychology section will focus on time, length, and weight estimations by humans under the influence of different colors. According to Goldstein (a researcher named in Birren’s book), red light is likely to be a factor in overestimating time. Conversely, green and blue tend to be a factor in time being underestimated. By this thinking, cool hues might be the best where routine and monotonous tasks are performed, such as in offices and factories. Warm hues would be suitable for living rooms, restaurants and cocktail lounges – where time in apparent “slow motion” might be more pleasurable (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 146). Related to this, the length of an object (or how we perceive the length of an object) is less correct in red light, and more correct under green and blue lights. In other words, things are likely to seem longer and bigger under warm light and shorter and smaller under cool light. Finally, weight is judged as lighter under bright lights and heavier under darker lights.