Spoiler alert: it’s probably not as much of a thing as you might think.
Do you feel anxious in a yellow room? Does the colour blue make you feel calm and relaxed?
Despite the general lack of research in this area, the concept of colour psychology has become a hot topic in marketing, art, design, and other areas. Much of the evidence in this area is anecdotal at best, but researchers and experts have made a few important discoveries and observations about the psychology of colour.
So how exactly does colour work in terms of mood, performance and behaviour?
Research has shown that our brain is wired to pay attention to objects that are of a contrasting colour compared to their surroundings. It helped our ancestors to find food, or to notice potential dangers and hazards.
In fact, contrast is one of the first things newborn babies notice.
However, when talking about emotions or behaviours influenced by colour, things get a bit more complex and myths like how a blue room would usually make you feel calmer, often get debunked.
First, colour perception varies among cultures.
In English, you are green with envy, in German yellow. Purple is often associated with wealth, royalty and nobility. In Thailand and Brazil, purple is the colour of mourning, however.
Second, within a culture, there can be differences, depending on the context. Red can represent romance in a flower shop (red roses) or violence and unfairness during a football match (red card).
Lastly, your own personal experiences and even taste can influence how you perceive colour. If you have a great fear of hospitals, you might associate the mint green with feelings of unease as opposed to calm.
However, if chosen wisely and adapted to their context and culture, colours can have a significant impact. They can affect how memorable something is, guide attention, evoke emotions, and even influence motor function and performance. Certain colours have been associated with increased blood pressure, increased metabolism, and eyestrain.
Existing research has found that colour can impact people in a variety of surprising ways:
- Warm-coloured placebo pills were reported as more effective than cool-coloured placebo pills in one study (1)
- Blue-coloured streetlights can lead to reduced crime according to anecdotal evidence
- Red causes people to react with greater speed and force, something that might prove useful during athletic activities according to researchers (2)
- Studies have also shown that certain colours can have an impact on performance. No one likes to see a graded test covered in red ink, but one study found that seeing the colour red before taking an exam actually hurt test performance (3)
There are plenty of theories regarding colour and consumer choices but there’s little research proving that these choices go beyond personal and cultural influences.
Your colour preferences when buying items might say something about the type of image you may be trying to project. Colour preferences, from the clothes you wear to the car you drive, can sometimes make a statement about how we want other people to perceive us. Other factors such as age, personality, climate and location can also influence the colour choices we make.
So what's the bottom line?
Experts have found that while colour can have an influence on how we feel and act, these effects are subject to personal, cultural, and situational factors. More scientific research is needed to gain a better understanding of colour psychology.