Warning: This article is aesthetically pleasing.
Color is impactful.
It’s no coincidence that almost all food chain logos use the color red. Think of McDonalds, Chick Fil A, Wendy’s, In and Out, Coca Cola, and Dairy Queen. The reason being, the color red increases appetite. Brands are simply utilizing color psychology to attract customers.
The impact of color far exceeds where and what we eat. It’s universal, for all ages and demographics. Common examples are in design, clothing, nature, lighting, technology, campaign branding, and art.
Color psychology studies this exact impact. It examines color’s effect on behavior, mood, and our brain’s neural activity.
The Roots of Color Psychology
History of color psychology dates back as early as 2000 BC. At the time, Greek, Egyptian, and Chinese civilizations used chromotherapy¹.
This integrative therapy used color exposure for medicinal practice. It also used red exposure for improved blood flow and circulation. Yellow was used for neurological disease. Doctors chose blue for calming psychological effect.²
Now, color is a psychological and physiological tool in a variety of mediums.
In advertising, color facilitates object recognition, guide attention, and perceive stimuli.³
Color also affects our emotional response and mood.
Many studies have concluded that color impacts attention and patterns of avoidance. From a social perspective, color changes interaction and perception of others. Red cheeks, for example, are associated with someone overheating or embarrassed. When someone is pale, we immediately conclude that they are sick or not feeling well.⁴
The color in context theory suggests that color is meaningful and has a great impact on cognitive processes.⁵ This theory also outlines how color grounds many metaphors. For example, people describe feeling sad or depressed by saying “I’m feeling blue today.”
The Neuroscience Behind Color Psychology
What is color?
The color humans see are actually electromagnetic waves. Humans can only process certain waves on the electromagnetic spectrum. The length of the wave determines visibility.
Colors vary because they have different wavelengths. For example, warm colors have longer wavelengths than cool ones.
How Color Activates Your Brain
Key players in color processing include the thalamus, orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and posterior midline cortex.
The thalamus interprets visual information that comes through your eye’s retina.¹⁶ Retinal ganglion cells are responsible for sending signals from light to the thalamus.¹⁷
The thalamus is nicknamed the body’s ‘biological clock.’ It regulates your body’s temperature, sleep patterns, and hunger levels.
The Meaning of Color
Every color has symbolic meaning. Scientists are still trying to understand much of the neuroscience behind color association. But, trends allow us to know their general effect.
Here’s a list specifying the psychological impact of each color:
Electromagnetically, red has the longest wavelength (680 nanometers). This may contribute to why it’s so psychologically impactful.
Think of Target, Youtube, Netflix, Chick Fil A, Wendys, CVS… the list goes on and on. Many marketing strategies use the color red because it’s attention grabbing.⁶
Recent studies used EEGs to measure brain activity in individuals viewing red stimuli. They found that red increased neurological activity, especially when in an emotional scenario.⁷
The color red activates the body’s fight or flight and motor response. Biomarkers of this include increased blood pressure, pulse, and respiration.
In certain contexts, red can be aggressive and demanding.
The color red is both threatening and exciting. Wearing red jerseys has been found to increase chances of winning in sports.⁸
Red symbolically represents danger (e.g. blood, fire)
Red is associated with sex appeal and food.
Orange is a happy, energetic color. It’s used to symbolize heat, energy, and religion.
Neurologically, orange increases appetite and performance.⁹
The color orange is great to be surrounded by during exercise or exams. It increases mental focus and performance.
Yellow has the most psychological impact of all colors.
Yellow creates feelings of happiness, joy, and friendliness.¹⁰
The color yellow has been proven to increase self esteem, confidence, and creativity.
Yellow stimulates the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that boosts happiness levels.¹¹
Light yellow, especially pastel colors, cause viewers to feel nostalgic and recall childhood memories.
Yellow is also associated with greed and weakness. It’s the hardest color to visually process, so it can increase irritability.
Green symbolizes rebirth, nature, growth, serenity, good luck, wealth, and refreshment.
The color green is calming to viewers.
If you want guests to feel at home, green is a great design color. It helps people adapt to new environments. Many hotels and offices add green accents through furniture and plants to be homey¹².
The impact of blue depends on its shade.
Light blue is calming, and enhances cognitive functioning. Light blue increases concentration. It lowers blood pressure and neural activity.
Darker blues symbolize gloom, drowsiness and fear. They also remind people of water bodies.
Scientists believe neurotransmitter dopamine may play a role in how our brain’s process the color blue.¹³ ADHD involves dopamine deficiencies in those diagnosed. People with ADHD often struggle to see the color blue, suggesting the brain may have specialized processing for each color.
Black symbolizes sophistication, formality, and modernity. Black also symbolizes darkness, power, evil, and mourning. ¹⁴
Recent studies found that because black can suggest aggression. Because of this perception, referees are hardest on plays in black jerseys.¹⁵
White is a neutral color, and presents purity, peace, and sterility.
Doctors and nurses wear white colors for a neutral, calming effect and to also convey sterility.
The Science Behind Color Preference
Almost everyone has a favorite color, but why? A recent study aimed to expand knowledge on the neuroscience behind color preference. Using neuroimaging, they measured how color activated regions of the brain. Researchers found that the medial prefrontal cortex and retrosplenial cortex are most activated when individuals determine color preference.¹⁸
Colors are ‘harmonious’ when they look good together. The study also found color harmony activates the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala.
Some colors are emotionally stimulating. The posterior midline cortex (MPC) is a crucial part of the default mode network. Studies have found that the MPC is most activated when color affects us emotionally.¹⁹
Many people with visual disabilities are still able to perceive color. This is because skin senses the electromagnetic energy of color.
Eyes have the majority of photoreceptors, or cells that process light and color. New studies suggest that versions of these photoreceptors may be throughout our skin. Examples of such are cells called cryptochromes and opsins.²⁰
Color processing still needs thorough research. Bevil Conway is a neuroscientist at Wellesley College and Harvard Medical School. He is currently researching the brain’s color systems with primates.²¹ Recently, he found specialized ‘globs’ of neurons that are activated when exposed to a certain color.
This suggests that our brain has processing areas encoded for each unique color. The largest color cluster Conway found was activated by the color red.
Research also shows that color perception may rely on our memories.
A German study used fruit to measure cognitive effect on discoloration. When fruit was discolored, subjects relied on prior knowledge. As a result, subjects perceived the fruit color normally.²²
This suggests that memory helps visual perception under diminished conditions. The relationship between color perception and memory retrieval may correlate with why certain colors, such as yellow, cause individuals to feel nostalgic.
Your Sleep and Color
As listed above, many colors elicit physiological response. Sleep patterns prove the body’s psychological relationship to color.
Have you ever wondered how we know when to wake up? Exposure to light is a key contributor.
Blue and green light causes the thalamus to release cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that stimulates our physiological activity. At night, the darkness of the sky causes our thalamus to release melatonin, which makes us sleepy.²³
Color psychology is an amazingly simple biohack to change mood and emotions. Marketing and brand teams use it in logos, media campaigns, and advertisements. Yet, you don’t have to be selling something to manipulate color.
Make color a part of your psychological tool belt, you’ll feel the difference.
Azeemi, S. T., & Raza, S. M. (2005). A critical analysis of chromotherapy and its scientific evolution. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2(4), 481–488. https://doi.org/10.1093/ecam/neh137
Cherry, K. (2020, May 28). Can Color Affect Your Mood and Behavior? Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/color-psychology-2795824
Singh, N., & Srivastava, S. K. (2011). Impact of Colors on the Psychology of Marketing — A Comprehensive over View. Management and Labour Studies, 36(2), 199–209. https://doi.org/10.1177/0258042X1103600206
Elliot, A. J. (2015). Color and psychological functioning: A review of theoretical and empirical work. Frontiers in Psychology,6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00368
Kuniecki, M., Pilarczyk, J., & Wichary, S. (2015). The color red attracts attention in an emotional context. An ERP study. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9, 212. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00212
Kurt, Sevinc & Osueke, Kelechi. (2014). The Effects of Color on the Moods of College Students. SAGE Open. 4. 10.1177/2158244014525423.
Effect of Different Colors on Human Mind and Body. (2013, February 4). Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://www.cbsd.org/cms/lib/PA01916442/Centricity/Domain/1752/AOW 30 Effect of Different Colors on Human Mind and Body.pdf
Jalil, Nurlelawati & Yunus, Rodzyah & Said, Normahdiah. (2012). Environmental Colour Impact upon Human Behaviour: A Review. Procedia — Social and Behavioral Sciences. 35. 54–62. 10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.02.062.
Kaplan, S. (2015, September 03). The scientific reason your world brightens up when you do. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/09/03/feeling-sad-could-literally-make-the-world-seem-grayer-study-finds/
Stephen Westland, T. C. (n.d.). Here’s How Colours Really Affect Our Brain And Body, According to Science. Retrieved July 14, 2020, from https://www.sciencealert.com/does-colour-really-affect-our-brain-and-body-a-professor-of-colour-science-explains
Racey, C., Franklin, A., & Bird, C. M. (2019). The processing of color preference in the brain. NeuroImage, 191, 529–536. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.02.041
Cronin, T. (2017, August 13). Seeing without Eyes. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/seeing-without-eyes1/
Jaffe, E. (2014, March 20). The Fascinating Neuroscience Of Color. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from https://www.fastcompany.com/3027740/the-fascinating-neuroscience-of-color
Hansen, T., Olkkonen, M., Walter, S., & Gegenfurtner, K. R. (2006). Memory modulates color appearance. Nature neuroscience, 9(11), 1367–1368. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1794