Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Color Psychology

  • Zena O’Connor
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_228



Color psychology refers to a branch of study which postulates that color has a range of psychological or behavioral responses.


Color psychology and color therapy exist on the periphery of alternative medicine and are generally not accepted under the auspices of mainstream medical science and psychology. Despite this, a plethora of articles can be found in mainstream and digital media that discuss a link between color and a range of psychological, cognitive, biological, and behavioral effects. While it is often promoted that such a link exists on a universal, causal basis by some sectors of the media, there is minimal evidence to support this hypothesis. Furthermore, there are a number of factors that influence color and human response, and these include individual differences (such as age, gender, affective state, belief systems, and environmental stimuli screening ability), social and cultural differences, as well as contextual and temporal differences. Despite this, claims such as red is stimulating and arousing and blue is calming, relaxing, and healing are often quoted without substantiation or evidence of any nature in popular media. The source of such claims can be traced to a number of key authors including Faber Birren, Kurt Goldstein, Robert Gerard, and Max Lüscher, whose works have been either superseded or debunked for lack of scientific rigor. However, some proponents have a vested interest in promoting a link between color and human response due to the popularity of such claims and the opportunity to capitalize on this popularity through the sale of books, workshops, courses, and consultancy services. While there is a place for such products and services, there are also compelling reasons to apply the principle of caveat emptor to color psychology and color therapy claims found in nonacademic sources.

Defining Color Psychology

The term “color psychology” suggests that the interface between color and human response is underpinned by a causal link wherein color has the capacity to influence a range of human responses including affective, cognitive, and related behavioral responses. In mainstream media and popular culture, “the psychological effects of color” is assumed to be a causal link that exists on a universal basis irrespective of individual differences or the impact of cultural, contextual, or temporal factors [1, p. 9]. This understanding about color psychology remains fairly consistent; however, some sources extend the definition to include a larger gamut of responses from  color preference to precognitive, psychophysical, and “biology-based responses,” defined as responses on human metabolism, circulation, and respiratory systems [2, p. 92].

The word “therapy” as in “color therapy” generally refers to a remediation of a health or psychological issue intended to address a diagnosed problem or stop a medical or psychological condition from occurring. Hence, color therapy implies that color can be used as a therapeutic device in the remediation of a health or psychological issue. Some writers take this concept further and suggest that the “biological consequences of color responses can be a valuable tool in health management” for the treatment of various ailments, and this appears to be a fairly common understanding of the term [2, p. 93], while other writers suggest that color therapy, or chromotherapy, can be used prescriptively as a “truly holistic, non-invasive and powerful therapy which dates back thousands of years” [3, p. 1].

The Interface Between Color and Human Response: Recent Research

Academic literature includes a broad range of studies that discuss the effects of light as well as the influence of colored light waves in respect to human response. While human vision is a complex and not yet fully understood process, the receptor system for detecting light has been found to be different from that associated with the circadian cycle [4]. In reference to human circadian cycles, light tends to regulate our sleeping patterns and changes in light–dark exposure can desynchronize the circadian cycle affecting the ability to sleep and wake, as well as impacting on physiological and metabolic processes. Disruptions to the circadian rhythm may result in changes in mood and behavior as evidenced by studies that focus on seasonal affective disorder, known by the acronym SAD (seasonal affective disorder) [5, 6, 7]. Light has also been found to have an effect on the human neuroendocrine system and may also suppress melatonin and elevate cortisol production, which can have negative impacts [7, 8]. Furthermore, a number of recent studies have indicated that certain wavelengths of light may have specific impacts. For example, blue light may improve cognitive performance; different colored lenses may assist with reading difficulties such as dyslexia; and the human circadian system may be particularly sensitive to short-wavelength light [9, 10, 11]. Despite the many advances in recent research, the precise roles of the rods and cones of the retina as well as melanopsin in the control of circadian cycles remain to be determined [12].

A plethora of studies exist which suggest that color may influence a range of psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses; however, the range and diversity of research findings was highlighted by an analysis of 30 studies [13]. For example, it has been suggested that red has a greater capacity for arousal than blue [14, 15, 16]. However, findings from a more recent study suggest that there is no statistically significant difference between these two colors in terms of physiological arousal and that it may be hue rather than saturation (intensity) of color that has an impact [17]. In addition, recent studies have found that responses to color may vary depending on age, gender, culture, and preference [18, 19]. It is important to note that while many of the recent studies that focus on psychological, physiological, and behavioral responses are scientifically rigorous, the findings are often based on an extremely limited range of color samples or a small sample group. In terms of color therapy, while associations may exist between various colors and a range of different human responses, it does not necessarily follow that such colors can be effectively used in therapy as some sources in popular media suggest.

Color Psychology in Popular Media

Information about color psychology in popular media is abundant and accessible via myriad magazines, online magazines, and Internet websites. Internet search engine Google currently provides access to 365,000 websites for information relating to color psychology. For example, www.about.com and www.colortherapyhealing.com provide numerous pages on color psychology and color healing, respectively, with the latter providing fairly detailed information about the use of color as a therapeutic tool and a range of color therapy workshops. Similarly, www.colour-affects.co.uk offers detailed comment about the so-called psychological properties of color and provides a summary of four personality types supposedly linked to specific colors. In addition, mass media magazines and online magazines such as WellBeing (www.wellbeing.com.au) feature various articles on color psychology and color therapy.

The information available from popular, mainstream media can vary from broad, generalized commentary to detailed, pseudoscientific discussions peppered with relatively harmless generalizations, platitudes, and motherhood statements, at best, and unsubstantiated and highly dubious claims, at worst, such as “colors are the mother tongue of the subconscious” and “color heals.”

Some sources of information provide claims about perceptual color effects and color associations intermingled with unsubstantiated claims about color psychology such as:

Although red, yellow and orange are in general considered high-arousal colors and blue, green and most violets are low-arousal hues, the brilliance, darkness and lightness of a color can alter the psychological message. While a light blue-green appears to be tranquil, wet and cool, a brilliant turquoise, often associated with a lush tropical ocean setting, will be more exciting to the eye. The psychological association of a color is often more meaningful than the visual experience.

Colors act upon the body as well as the mind. Red has been shown to stimulate the senses and raise the blood pressure, while blue has the opposite effect and calms the mind. People will actually gamble more and make riskier bets when seated under a red light as opposed to a blue light. That’s why Las Vegas is the city of red neon. [20]

Other sources of information suggest that color has therapeutic effects such as the claims provided in the online magazine Conscious Living.

Colour can repair and heal the body, when the frequency of the colour aligns with the emotion needed to activate the micro-particulars so healing can take place… The use of colour in visualisation is most effective, and easiest for the novice to utilise, as colour has a very strong radiating effect on the whole body. Every other form of colour therapy is fundamentally symbolic. [21]

In a similar vein, Wright suggests that

In practice, colour psychology works on two levels: the first level is the fundamental psychological properties of the eleven basic colours, which are universal, regardless of which particular shade, tone or tint of it you are using. Each of them has potentially positive or negative psychological effects and which of these effects is created depends on personality types and —crucially— the relationships within colour combinations, the second level of colour psychology. [22]

Wright offers further clarification from the colour affects system, and it should be noted that the colour affects site offers color consultancy services plus a range of industry and personal courses and workshops.

Similarly, Rewell provides a detailed discussion about specific responses to color in the online magazine WellBeing as follows:

Babies cry more in yellow rooms. Tension increases in people in yellow rooms and people who drive yellow cars are more prone to become aggravating in heavy traffic… Spend time exposed to a lot of yellow and you’ll feel like time has sped up… A rejection of yellow indicates a fear of change… Red stimulates the physical and adrenalin. It raises blood pressure, the heart rate and respiration. [23]

Other sources of information about color psychology include architectural and interior design books (e.g., see Kopacz and Mahnke) as well as technical reports [2, 24, 25]. In addition, various courses and workshops discuss issues relating to color psychology including the Colour Therapy Healing organization in the UK, the International School of Colour and Design in Sydney, and the Nature Care College in Sydney [26, 27, 28].

Information from sources such as those discussed above often quotes a range of color associations co-mingled with various psychological, cognitive, or behavioral responses to color. In addition, such sources rarely if ever provide evidence to substantiate any claims regarding the impact of color on human response. An example of the intermingling of a range of different types of response is provided by Cherry as follows:

Red is a bright, warm color that evokes strong emotions. Red is also considered an intense, or even angry, color that creates feelings of excitement or intensity.

Blue calls to mind feelings of calmness or serenity. It is often described as peaceful, tranquil, secure, and orderly. Blue can also create feelings of sadness or aloofness. Blue is often used to decorate offices because research has shown that people are more productive in blue rooms.

Green is restful, soothing, cheerful and health-giving. Green is thought to relieve stress and help heal. Those who have a green work environment experience fewer stomach aches. Green has long been a symbol of fertility. [1]

Some sources go so far as to state symbolic color associations and then extend these further to include different situations or contexts such as the following:

Red is the colour for courage, strength and pioneering spirit… It is the colour of anger, violence and brutality.

Blue is calming, relaxing and healing (but) not as sedentary as indigo.

Green is the colour of balance and harmony and can, therefore, be helpful in times of stress. If one has experienced trauma, a green silk wrapped around the shoulders can have a very therapeutic effect. [3]

It is not uncommon for claims such as those above to be presented in an authoritative manner, exhorting the reader to believe and accept; however, the lack of evidence indicates that such claims are often personal opinion masquerading as scientific fact or pseudoscience.

An Irrefutable, Causal, and Universal Link Between Color and Human Response?

Various sources of information in mainstream media and related sources tend to suggest that an irrefutable, causal relationship exists between color and human response, as illustrated by Hill’s statement: “Based on numerous studies by Drs Morton Walker, Gerard and Faber Birren, the link between color and physiological responses has been well documented” [24, p. 7].

In addition, many sources imply that the link between color and human response is universal irrespective of individual or cultural differences. For example, Logan-Clarke asserts: “Red… is stimulating and energizing therefore it is helpful for tiredness and lethargy, to stimulate low blood pressure, to boost sluggish circulation… Red is energizing and excites the emotions, and can stimulate the appetite” [3, p. 10]. Similarly, Rewell contends “Red stimulates the physical and adrenalin. It raises blood pressure, the heart rate and respiration” [23], while Kopacz suggests “Red is believed to sensitise the taste buds and sense of smell, increasing the appetite… all this occurs because the heart rate instinctively quickens, which causes a release of adrenalin into the bloodstream raising blood pressure and stimulating the nerves” and “the sight of the color blue causes the body to release tranquilizing hormones when it is surveyed, particularly a strong blue sky” and “many believe (blue) can lower blood pressure, slow the pulse rate and decrease body temperature” [2, pp. 76, 79].

In regard to such claims, Kopacz notes the lack of evidential support but offers the work of a number of authors and designers including Birren and Mahnke as well as Morton Walker (author of Bald No More, Foods for Fabulous Sex, Your Guide to Foot Health, as well as The Power of Color) and Wright (color consultant of www.colour-affects.co.uk) to support his color psychology claims. Similarly, Mahnke notes the inconclusive nature of findings from research that focuses on the interface between color and human response, but nevertheless refers to the work of Birren and Goldstein among others as support for various psychophysiological effects of color.

In regard to color therapy, it is suggested that color can be used as a treatment tool in conjunction with the seven chakras of the body [2, 3, 25]. The concept of chakras, considered to be energy centers within the human body, belongs to a belief system originating in the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads, dating from the first millennium BCE. Under the color chakra theory, a color is linked to each of the seven chakra and these colors are associated with bodily functions and dysfunctions within each chakra area. For example:

Red: Activates the circulation system and benefits the five senses; used to treat colds, paralysis, anaemia, ailments of the bloodstream and ailments of the lung;

Blue: Raises metabolism; is used to stabilize the heart, muscles and bloodstream; used to treat burns, skin diseases, glaucoma, measles and chicken pox, and throat problems;

Green: Strengthens bones and muscles, disinfects bacteria and virus, and relieves tension; used to treat… malaria, back problems, cancer, nervous disorders, and ulcers, and to manage heart problems and blood pressure. [2, p. 93]

The allocation of colors to each of the chakras is reminiscent of the doctrine of the four color-linked humors of the body from ancient Greek medicine: black bile, yellow bile, green phlegm, and red blood. The linking of color with the humors, the four elements (earth, fire, water, and air) as well as the seasons, represented the color correspondence beliefs that emerged in antiquity and continued through to the Renaissance as evidenced by the color correspondences depicted in the engraving by Nicoletto Rosex [29].

Aside from ancient belief systems, much of the information currently available in popular media about color psychology echoes, if not directly quotes, the work of a number of key theorists, including Faber Birren, Robert Gerard, Kurt Goldstein, and Max Lüscher (e.g., see [1, 2, 3, 22, 25, 30, 31, 32]).

Birren, Gerard, Goldstein, and Lüscher

Extensively quoted by recent authors, Birren published more than 40 books and over 250 articles on color psychology, color therapy, as well as color application. Tunney advises that Birren was a leading authority on color in the mid-twentieth century who was retained as a color consultant by DuPont, General Electric, Sears, Roebuck and Company, and the United States Navy [33]. Birren championed an unambiguous, irrefutable, and universal causal link between color and human response, and he cites Goldstein’s assertion that “It is probably not a false statement if we say that a specific color stimulation is accompanied by a specific response pattern of the entire (human) organism” [34, p. 144]. Given his role as color consultant, it was in his interests to champion such a link as he was able to then provide advice addressing this link in a range of commercial contexts.

Goldstein, who published The Organism in 1939, was considered a significant authority on the psychological and physiological impacts of color by Birren, who quoted Goldstein in his Color Psychology and Color Therapy publication: “under the influence of red light, time is likely to be overestimated. Conversely, under the influence of green or blue light, time is likely to be underestimated” and “under red light, weights will be judged as heavier; under green light they will be judged lighter” [35, p. 211]. Birren as well Mahnke cites Goldstein’s 1942 study, which discussed the perceived stimulating effects of red and the opposite effects of green [16].

Gerard, whose 1958 doctoral thesis (“Differential effects of colored lights on psychophysical functions”) was subsequently presented as a conference paper (“Color and emotional arousal”), is also frequently cited by Birren and Mahnke [15, 36]. Gerard’s key findings from his study on the arousal properties of red, blue, and white illumination, as reported by Wise, Wise, and Beach, include: “statistical differences between red-blue (illumination) conditions for all physiological measures except heart rate… responses to the white light varied but most often were similar to those of the red condition” [37, p. 5]. Wise et al. also note that Gerard, whose study involved a small sample of only 24 male university students, advised caution in terms of the generalizability of his findings. It is unfortunate that Gerard’s advice was not reported by subsequent authors.

Lüscher, who developed and published the Lüscher Color Test, included four basic colors (which he referred to as psychological primaries) in the color test: orange-red, bright yellow, blue-green, and dark-blue, as well as four auxiliary colors – violet, brown, black, and neutral gray [38]. Citing anecdotal evidence, Lüscher assigned specific associations and affective characteristics to each color. For example, (red) has a “stimulating effect on the nervous system – blood pressure increases, respiration rate and heartbeat both speed up”; while blue “has the reverse effect – blood pressure falls, heartbeat and breathing both slow down” [38, p. 12]. The Lüscher Color Test is essentially a  color preference test and its use in personality testing and assessment has been soundly cautioned [39].

While the works of Birren, Gerard, Goldstein, and Lüscher have their place in the literature on color, it is important to note that their theories have, to a large extent, been debunked due to methodological shortcomings. In addition, more recent and methodologically more rigorous studies have superseded these earlier authors, and this, plus a number of other reasons discussed below, provides a compelling case for applying the principle of caveat emptor to information about color psychology and color therapy found in mainstream media.

Color Psychology and Color Therapy: Caveat Emptor

Latin for “buyer beware,” the term caveat emptor suggests that in the absence of a warranty, the buyer is at risk, and therefore onus for carefully assessing goods and services prior to purchase remains with the buyer. There are a number of reasons why the principle of caveat emptor should prevail in regard to information about color psychology and color therapy.

Firstly, the existence of an irrefutable and universal causal link between color and an unlimited range of psychological, biological, and behavioral responses remains a largely unsupported hypothesis. While numerous studies exist that focus on the interface between color and human response, a systematic and critical review of over 200 studies was conducted for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1988. This study concluded that “there are no ‘hard-wired’ linkages between environmental colors and particular judgmental or emotional states” [37, p. 46].

In addition, while a number of studies exist which focus on the interface between color and human response, the findings of many of these studies are limited by the setting and context of the study, the size and composition of the sample group, as well as the limited range of colors used in the stimuli. Extrapolating beyond the data in such studies is methodologically unsound, especially when small sample sizes are used [40]. Very small sample groups were used by many early studies including the often-quoted studies of Goldstein and Gerard:
  • Sample size of 3–5 [16]

  • Sample size of 24 [15]

  • Sample size of 48 [41]

  • Sample size of 14 [42]

  • Sample size of 25 [43]

In addition, many early studies focused on the color attribute of hue alone without any consideration of the attributes of tonal value or saturation, and many research studies used small colored squares of cardboard as stimuli and the findings from such studies were extrapolated to a whole range of other contexts or situations. The findings of such studies have extremely limited relevance due to the methodological weakness of studying a complex and highly subjective phenomenon as color in isolation with limited stimuli.

Ancient wisdom is often cited as a reason to believe claims about color psychology and color therapy, with the underlying logic implying that ancient wisdom embedded within such claims represents evidential proof. For example, Kopacz cites the link between color and chakras of ancient Hindu scriptures as evidence, while Van Wagner suggests that chromotherapy was practiced by ancient cultures, including the Egyptians and Chinese [1, 2]. Such authors imply that not only is the wisdom of the ancients above question but it provides evidential proof of the veracity of various color-related claims. Clearly, ancient belief systems are not always a guarantee of veracity as evidenced by the superseded beliefs that the world is flat, and the sun and moon orbit the earth. Without disparaging the wisdom of the ancients, it is a fair comment that a proportion of ancient wisdom has been superseded by later scientific discovery. The existence of a link with ancient wisdom should not of itself be used as evidential proof of any claim regarding color psychology and color therapy.

Factoids are not facts, although many authors who write about color psychology and color therapy would have us believe otherwise. Coined by author Norman Mailer, factoids are suppositions or inventions presented as fact, and a comedic illustration is the line in the film Anchorman: “It’s anchorman not anchor-lady, and that’s a scientific fact!” [44]. Color psychology and color therapy information available in popular culture often appears as factoids rather than facts, especially when nil evidence is cited to support claims and assertions. Examples of unsubstantiated factoids include: “We are hard-wired to yellow as a stimulus… If you’re environment is boring and time passes slowly, surround yourself with small amounts of yellow” and “People who dislike yellow often favour blue to calm themselves and feel secure. If you drink coffee for a pick-me-up, try drinking it from a yellow cup” [23, p. 32]; similarly, “Yellow can also create feelings of frustration and anger. While it is considered a cheerful colour, people are more likely to lose their tempers in yellow rooms and babies tend to cry more in yellow rooms” [1].

The use of control groups, measures to control internal and external validity, and adequate levels of statistical significance are absent from some studies that focus on the interface between color and human response, and these impact negatively on the scientific rigor of such studies. It is empirically and methodologically unsound to draw generalized conclusions from such studies and transfer them to different settings and contexts [40, 45, 46, 47].

The fallacy of the single cause provides another reason to be cautious about claims regarding color psychology and color therapy. This fallacy suggests that one single cause for an outcome represents causal oversimplification, and under the post-positivist paradigm, recent theorists such as Hård and Sivik consider the interface between color and human response to be highly complex and open to the influence of a wide range of factors and mediating variables [48]. While correlation may indicate the existence of an association between one variable (such as color) and human response, correlation does not imply causation and suggesting a causal link without allowing for mediating variables is considered empirically and methodologically unsound [40, 45, 47].

Inherent bias, subjective validation, and data cherry picking in research studies always call into question the findings of such studies [40]. Specifically, “Scientists have a vested interest in promoting their work,” and this is often the case for color theorists and researchers whose publications support their role as consultants [40, p. 337]. In addition, subjective validation is evident in many studies that focus on the interface between color and human response. This occurs when two unrelated events are judged to be related because of an expectation of such or because an existing hypothesis demands such a relationship. For example, to apply the notion that “green relieves stress” to the following claims: “green silk wrapped around the shoulders can have a very therapeutic effect” and “Those who have a green work environment experience fewer stomach aches” indicates subjective validation and renders such claims invalid.

It is unwise to ignore any mediating variables that may impact a research study and this is particularly relevant to research that focuses on the interface between color and human response. In this context, mediating factors include an individual’s personality, personal bias and feelings, as well as cultural experiences and affective state. Mehrabian found that individual differences exist in terms of stimulus screening ability, and high screeners are able to automatically screen out less important components of environmental stimuli such as color and sound as opposed to low screeners [49]. Stimulus screening ability is rarely if ever mentioned in research studies that focus on color and human response nor is an individual’s own bias in terms of whether or not they consider color to have an impact on their responses to color.

To conclude, color psychology claims information found in mainstream media suggests that color prompts a range of different human responses: psychological, biological, and behavioral. Many of these claims lack substantiation in terms of empirical support, exhibit fundamental flaws (such as causal oversimplification and subjective validation), and are generally personal opinion and factoids masquerading as fact. Color psychology is a discipline that is not accepted within the medical profession and exists on the periphery of alternative medicine and therapies. It is therefore recommended that the principle of caveat emptor is applied when evaluating information about color psychology plus check with a medical practitioner or psychologist before acting upon such information.



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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Architecture, Design and PlanningUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia