Psychology of Color

The psychology of color examines the effect of color on the human mind, moods and behavior. The impact of color has been understood since ancient times, when colors were used in treatment (chromoteraphy). The perception of color is the intrinsic property of the eye and brain to process electromagnetic energy. The perception of color depends on the source of light, environment and illuminated objects, and varies from individual to individual. When light falls on objects, some is absorbed and some reflected. The visible part of the reflected spectrum is perceived as the color of the object. When light strikes the eye it causes reactions affecting the nervous system.

While responses to colors are dependent on age, gender, cultural background and individual experience, clinical studies identify some general patterns that seem rooted in the life process, going beyond the visual perception. Leading color theorist Faber Birren (1900 to 1988) believes colors are closely related to our senses, language, surroundings and personal features. In his theory, Birren links the perception of color with the emotion it arouses in the viewer. He claims color responses are interrelated with other senses. In his Color Psychology and Color Therapy, Birren says bright colors may have a benign effect on the mentally-challenged. He also states that introverts are less emotionally responsive to colors than extroverts. "Outwardly integrated," persons like colors in general and warm colors in particular, he wrote, while "inwardly integrated," people may choose cool colors or none.

Colors in the red range of the spectrum (red, orange, yellow) are generally referred to as warm, active colors and are associated with intense emotions ranging from joy and excitement to fury and violence. Red, yellow and orange, the colors of the sun and volcanoes, incite motion and change. Blue, green and purple, which are on the blue side of the spectrum, are cool, passive colors, arousing feelings of calmness, tranquility but also of coldness and depression. Green (associated with nature) has a soothing effect on vision and blue (the color of oceans and sky) implies serenity, quietness and unity.

In his study on the psychological aspects of color, psycho-neurologist Kurt Goldstein found that color affects the ability of the body to keep its position, with red light disturbing the equilibrium far more than green light. Thus wearing green glasses may relieve disturbances in patients with tremors, according to Goldstein.

Other psychological aspects of color are related to the notions of time, length and weight. Goldstein claims time is overestimated under the influence of red light and underestimated under blue light. Thus, from a functional perspective, cool colors are good for offices and industrial plants where monotonous work is performed, while warm hues are suitable for restaurants and living rooms. Objects appear longer and bigger under red light and shorter and smaller under blue light. Weights under green light can seem lighter and weights under red light appear heavier. Hence, weightlifters perform better in blue-colored gyms.

In their analysis of color and emotion preferences, Mark Meerum Terwogt and Jan B. Hoeksma asked participants to perform paired comparisons of colors and emotions on the basis of their preferences. The analysis covers six basic emotions (anger, happiness, sadness, fear, surprise and aversion) and six colors (red, blue, yellow and green plus black and white). The participants were divided into three age groups: seven-year-old children, 11-year-old children and adults. The emotion preferences were scaled on the positive/negative and agreeable/non-agreeable dimension. The study proved the assumption that highly preferred colors are linked with highly preferred emotions and vice versa. The analysis also confirms previous research that blue, red and green are the favorite colors of adults in this order and that children like red and yellow. However, the effect of preference on grown-ups while influenced by subjective and cultural experience and environmental reactions is overpowered by other factors that are yet to be identified.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Persuasive Imagery: A Consumer Response Perspective
Linda M. Scott; Rajeev Batra.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Sixteen "Color as a Tool for Visual Persuasion"
Color Psychology and Color Therapy: A Factual Study of the Influence of Color on Human Life
Faber Birren.
University Books, 1961
Colors Demonic and Divine: Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After
Herman Pleij; Diane Webb.
Columbia University Press, 2004
Relationship between Color and Emotion: A Study of College Students
Kaya, Naz; Epps, Helen H.
College Student Journal, Vol. 38, No. 3, September 2004
The Effects of Environmental Color
Etnier, Jennifer L.; Hardy, Charles J.
Journal of Sport Behavior, Vol. 20, No. 3, August 1997
Patterns in Interior Environments: Perception, Psychology, and Practice
Patricia Rodemann.
Wiley, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Color, Combinations, Styles, and Pattern"
Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception
Evan Thompson.
Routledge, 1995
Theories of Visual Perception
Ian E. Gordon.
Psychology Press, 2004 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Neurophysiology and Colour Vision" begins on p. 79
Color and Personality: Strong's Interest Inventory and Cattell's 16PF
Lange, Rense; Rentfrow, Jason.
North American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 3, December 2007
The Effect of Appropriate and Inappropriate Stimulus Color on Odor Discrimination
Stevenson, Richard J.; Oaten, Megan.
Perception and Psychophysics, Vol. 70, No. 4, May 2008
The Quest for Reality: Subjectivism and the Metaphysics of Colour
Barry Stroud.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Color and Consciousness: An Essay in Metaphysics
Charles Landesman.
Temple University Press, 1989
The Use of Color in Art Therapy
Withrow, Rebecca L.
Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring 2004
Consciousness and Cognition
Michael Thau.
Oxford University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Spectrum Inversion" and Chap. 5 "Black-and-White Mary"
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