Color Psychology (and the Importance of Context)

You don’t have to look long before you find a book or website touting the wonders of color psychology. Most of the time, these sites just present some loose word association with a handful of colors and call it a day. “Red is passion.” “Green is nature.” “Chartreuse is hard to spell.”

I can’t help but treat this brand of “psychology” much differently than star signs, Tarot cards, tea leaves, numbers, or crystals. It turns out, though, that an emerging body of research in psychology may shed some light on color psychology, using some solid science. I have to admit, though, that I was surprised to learn of this research. Dealing with the meaning of colors struck me as an unlikely topic for social psychology, but the more I read, the more the data seem to display a consistent pattern.

The Idea of Color Psychology

Color PsychologyIn 1942, Kurt Goldstein proposed that different colors provoke different physiological responses. If that’s the case, he figured, it means that colors could direct people’s focus and attention.

The idea is similar to what some other people have claimed, which is that the wavelength of a color is tied to its physiological effects on people. Colors with longer wavelengths—like red and yellow—were thought to be energizing, whereas colors with shorter wavelengths—like green and blue—were thought to be calming and relaxing. When you look at the evidence for this idea, though, the data just don’t support it.

Recently, though, there’s been new interest in the psychology of color among a team of social psychologists. By applying the research methods of psychological science, “Color-in-Context Theory” has offered some intriguing results and supports the existence of color psychology. The idea is that colors have meaning beyond mere aesthetics and that being exposed to those colors has a direct effect on our thoughts and feelings.

Where Color Gets Its Meaning

One question you might have is: why do these colors have any special meaning in the first place? Where do they come from? The answer, these psychologists suggest, lies both in “nature” and in “nurture.” Since color vision must have evolved to serve some adaptive advantage, there’s likely a biological component to color psychology.

Color PsychologyBut it’s not all evolutionary. Colors can also achieve meaning through learning. So, “yellow” might serve a biological function, it might also get added meaning from human-created concepts like yellow traffic lights or highlighting markers, whose meanings may have arisen through years of mentally associating the color with a particular social purpose.

The key to color-in-context theory is the context part. Colors don’t have universal meaning. Instead, they have different meanings in different contexts. For instance, in the context of transportation, “yellow” might make you to slow down. Yellow lights, school buses, yield signs, caution tape…they all built this meaning. In another context, though, the bright color of yellow might provoke confidence, exuberance, and a go-get-‘em attitude. The context is key.

The Case of the Color Red

To get a handle on color psychology in context, researchers have focused their attention on the color red and the different meanings it can have. In their experiments, scientists carefully control all details of an activity and just manipulate a specific element of color. This is important because it means that any difference between conditions can be attributed only to the color because everything else would be exactly the same.

Red and “Achievement”

Color PsychologyFirst, let’s look at the context of achievement (i.e., whenever your performance is being evaluated). In this context, what does red signal? You may know the feeling of getting back a school assignment with red pen marks strewn across your work. So in this context, the color red signals danger of failure.

Across a range of studies, when people saw the color red right before an intellectual test, they ended up doing worse on the test. This wasn’t the case when they saw different colors. For example, before participants started a difficult analogies test, the name of the test (“Analogies”) appeared on screen with either a red, green or white background. Compared to the green and white conditions, the participants who saw the red background completed significantly fewer analogies correctly.

In another simple study, some people got a test where their ID number was printed in red ink, and other people got a test where their ID number was printed in green or black ink. The people whose IDs were printed in red ended up getting fewer question correct than the people whose IDs were printed in green or black.

Red and “Affiliation”

But what about a different context? Does red always carry a negative connotation in color psychology, making people unwilling to try hard?

Color PsychologyThe other context that researchers have been exploring is “affiliation,” which just means heterosexual cross-gender interactions. In this context, red means something entirely different. It has a positive meaning, and it pushes people to approach.

People commonly associate the color red with love, romance, and passion (and this is often how it’s treated in non-scientific color psychology). Walking down the greeting card aisle in February gives you a sense of how that association may be socially learned. Biologically, though, the color red is often expressed in the body during mating, courting, and particular moments within the menstrual cycle.

In a series of studies, researchers had men rate women’s photos. Sometimes the photos had a red background, and sometimes they didn’t, but the photos themselves were always the same. Consistently, though, men rated the women as more attractive, sexually desirable, and “date-worthy” when the photos appeared on the red background, compared to when they appeared on a white background.

In their other studies, the researchers would have women wear either a red shirt or a green shirt, and then male participants would have a casual conversation with these women. When the woman was wearing a red shirt, the men chose more intimate questions than when the same woman was wearing a green shirt. By the way, these same sorts of effects also happen when women are evaluating men.

Color Psychology 2.0

So it seems like there may really be something to color psychology, but the important thing to understand is that colors don’t have universal meaning. It’s only in specific contexts that a color carries a particular meaning.

In this article, I focused on the color red. Can you imagine how long it would take to exhaustively understand the effects of every color in every context? So I can’t give you the cute little infographics that other website provide. My point is a bigger psychological one—that colors can have meaning and can create particular mindsets. Some research on this theory has already started to look at other colors, like green and its effects on creativity. But with time, maybe you’ll finally have a solid answer for what color to paint your office.

5 thoughts on “Color Psychology (and the Importance of Context)

  1. Thanks for the cool read about colour psychology. It was really interesting to think about the different meanings a color can have depending on the context, like how red can signify failure as well as also making people seem more attractive with a red background. I’m really interested to learn more about the different meanings a color can have, like blue or orange. Not only that, but I’m curious to learn if this can affect people who are color-blind as well.

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