Color Psychology

What does each color mean? How does color influence our perception and behavior?

Introduction

Color is everywhere.

So, a lot of research on color must exist, right?

Actually…no. Not really.

In Google Scholar, a search for “color psychology” returned 2,480 studies.

Color psychology is on the same level as men’s underwear.

Perhaps worse, this field is plagued with pseudoscience. It’s hard to know which information to trust.

In this guide, you’ll learn the practical side of color — all backed by science.

If you need to choose a color within the next 5 minutes, follow this table:

Components of Color

All of these colors are blue:

Variations of Blue

Yet those colors look different. Why is that? Because color has three components:

  1. Hue. Overall category (e.g., blue, red, yellow).
  2. Value. Level of brightness. Shades are dark, while tints are bright.
  3. Chroma. Level of saturation. Low chroma looks washed out, while high chroma looks vivid.

Contrary to popular belief, value and chroma are more powerful than hues (Suk & Irtel, 2009).

You can find these components in most software:

Why Do You Prefer Certain Colors?

Many color preferences originate from two sources: evolution and ecological valence theory.

Evolution

Over time, females developed a preference for reddish colors because of their ancestral duties in gathering food — which required them to identify warm colors on green foliage:

…the ability to discriminate red wavelengths may have a greater adaptive significance for foragers (i.e., females) than for resource protectors (i.e., males) and so contribute to contemporary visual biases. (Alexander, 2003, p. 11)

Red berries on a green bush

Ecological Valence Theory

Your brain has a web of knowledge. Consider your node for BEACH:

If you enjoy the beach, you might prefer blue because this color is connected to positive emotions.

Beach node connected to ocean, blue, happiness, and sand

However, your preferences will change with new experiences. Get hit by a blue car? Suddenly blue is less appealing:

New node of "Pain" attached to blue node

Today, parents reinforce a “typical” color for each gender. They give:

  • …blue toys to boys
  • …pink toys to girls

And voila: Boys prefer blue, while girls prefer pink.

Based on ecological valence theory, the entirety of your color preferences — from most favorite to least favorite — falls in direct accordance with your past experience:

The more enjoyment and positive affect an individual receives from experiences with objects of a given color, the more the person will tend to like that color. (Palmer & Schloss, 2010, p. 8878)

What Does Each Color Mean?

People assume that each color has a meaning:

  • Blue means ____________.
  • Brown means ____________.
  • Yellow means____________.

But it’s not that straightforward. Any meaning depends on past experience. For example, custodians see yellow from urine. In their brain, yellow is connected to disgust. Seeing this color in any context can activate disgust.

Culture matters, too.

Westerners love blue, yet this color is “evil” in East Asia (Schmitt, 1995).

So, is there any universal agreement? Can colors mean the same thing across the world? Short answer, yes.

A color will inherit universal meaning if — and only if — everyone sees this color in the same context. For example, certain colors (red, yellow, orange) are universally “warm” because every human feels warmth while viewing these colors in the sun.

In this section, I propose other universal meanings.

Visibility

White and black resemble day and night, respectively.

Both colors, in turn, foster different levels of visibility — white feels more visible, while black feels less visible. And this visibility can influence behavior.

For example, people perform “good” behaviors if others are watching. In one study, people donated more money near an image of eyes (vs. flowers; Bateson, Nettle, & Roberts, 2006).

Similar effects occur with lighting. People who recalled an ethical behavior estimated a room to be brighter (Banerjee, Chatterjee, & Sinha, 2012). Subconsciously, they wanted other people to see their good deed.

Likewise, restricting visibility (e.g., through darkness) increases “bad” behaviors — e.g., sports teams with black uniforms get more penalties (Frank, & Gilovich, 1988). In the context of darkness, immoral behaviors feel less visible.

So, determine your desired behavior. Choose light colors for “good” behaviors and dark colors for “bad” behaviors:

  • Online Donations. Charities should use a white background for their website so that donations feel more visible to the world.
  • Beginner Software. New users in a software might prefer a dark interface so that nobody will see their rookie mistakes.
  • Adult Content. Visitors of an “adult” website might prefer a dark website so that nobody will see them.

See my book The Tangled Mind for other examples.

Importance

Heavy objects seem important — e.g., information on a heavy clipboard seems more important (Ackerman, Nocera, & Bargh, 2010).

Well, dark colors look heavy:

Two white squares next to dark square

Doesn’t the dark square seem to pull downward?

Want to make something more important? Add dark colors. People will ascribe more “weight” to this content:

Three squares that look important because they are dark and heavy

Ability

Dark colors seem heavy and important, but light colors seem actionable.

Why? You simulate actions before you do them. In other words, you imagine yourself performing an action to gauge the desirability of it.

More importantly, physical weight can distort these simulations:

  • Hills seem steeper if you wear a heavy backpack.
  • Distances seem farther for overweight people.
  • Jumping distances seem farther with ankle weights.

Sources: Bhalla & Proffitt, 1999; Sugovic, Turk, & Witt, 2016; Lessard, Linkenauger, & Proffitt, 2009.

I suspect that a similar effect occurs with interfaces: Digital traversal seems easier in a white and empty background because nothing will impede the simulation of movement. In dark interfaces, movements seem effortful because the heavy colors feel like a cumbersome backpack.

However, this heaviness could be helpful, too. If movements feel more difficult, then exit actions (e.g., leaving the website) should decrease. Perhaps visitors succumb to the heaviness of dark colors by remaining on the same page of a website. Therefore:

  • White interfaces are better for action goals (e.g., purchases)
  • Dark interfaces are better for duration goals (e.g., time on site)

Attraction

People in red shirts seem more attractive. This effect has been replicated multiple times (Elliot & Niesta, 2008; see Pazda, Elliot, & Greitemeyer, 2012).

Some researchers offer an evolutionary explanation — for example, monkeys develop red swellings on their butts to attract mates (Dixson, 1983). Humans might have inherited a similar mechanism.

Perhaps…but I see another explanation. I spoke to one of the lead authors of that effect, and he agreed that my explanation seems plausible.

First, we confuse physical warmth with social warmth — these concepts share the same circuitry in our brain (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2013).

Why? As babies, we experienced those two concepts simultaneously whenever our parents held us:

…for an infant, the subjective experience of affection is typically correlated with the sensory experience of warmth, the warmth of being held…the associations are automatically built up between the two domains…children are then able to separate out the domains, but the cross-domain associations persist (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 46).

Today, activating physical warmth activates social warmth: You perceive other people to be friendlier when you hold hot coffee (Williams & Bargh, 2008).

The reverse happens too: A need for social warmth will activate a need for physical warmth. Lonely people prefer warmer baths and showers because they confuse the physical warmth for social warmth (Bargh, & Shalev, 2012).

Still with me?

People who seek companionship (social warmth) will prefer physical warmth (e.g., warm shower). And that’s the key. Red is a “warm” color that resembles heat. Therefore, people in red shirts seem more attractive because this physical warmth feels like social warmth.

Use warm colors (red, orange, yellow) in contexts where people desire sociality.

Details

Again, your brain confuses physical warmth and social warmth. You felt these concepts simultaneously when your parents held you as a baby.

Visualize the sensation of being held. Do you see a third concept? Bodily warmth also requires physical proximity.

In other words, your brain has these connections:

  • Warmth = Proximity
  • Warmth = Red

Lo and behold, your brain infers that Red = Proximity. Red objects simply feel closer to you. And this proximity influences your perception.

How? Right now, look at something far away.

You probably can’t see the details, right? Only the gist?

Well, this spatial perspective dictates your conceptual perspective. Suppose that you see a suitcase:

  • Across the room? You focus on the gist of travel (e.g., where to go).
  • Right next to you? You focus on concrete details (e.g., when to pack).

Red objects feel closer, so they orient your perception toward details. In one study, customers preferred red advertisements that described the details of a camera, but they preferred blue advertisements that described an overview (Mehta & Zhu, 2009).

The Takeaway: Use red for details, yet blue for overviews.

Time

You focus on the “gist” of distant objects. This includes abstract distances, like time.

Right now, imagine a future event.

This event is “far away” from you. And, just like an object in the sensory world, this distance will broaden your perceptive toward the gist.

In fact, your visualization is also less colorful. Researchers asked people to color a blank drawing of a housewarming party. If the party was happening in the distant future, people used more variations of grey (Lee, Fujita, Deng, & Unnava, 2017).

Photo of party that gets less colorful as it moves toward past or future

Designing an ad? Reduce the color for “distant” events. People donated more money to a distant fundraiser with black-and-white imagery (Lee, Fujita, Deng, & Unnava, 2017).

Arousal

Color has a U-shaped relationship with arousal (e.g., adrenaline). Warm colors are stimulating, while cool colors are relaxing (Crowley, 1993).

Warm colors activating, yet cool colors deactivating

Blue is relaxing. And, when you feel relaxed, time seems faster.

Therefore, blue is better for loading screens (Gorn, Chattopadhyay, Sengupta, & Tripathi, 2004). Red can backfire because time seems slower:

…the uniforms of the checkout employees might influence perceived ease and time spent during the transaction…a store like Target, with its almost overwhelming, saturated red atmosphere at the checkout area, may need to reconsider its interior color choices. (Labrecque, 2010, p. 30)

However, arousal has a benefit — it inhibits cortical functioning. People spend less time rationalizing or debating. They act now (Walley & Weiden, 1973; Crowley, 1993).

Therefore, what’s your goal?

  • Liking? Use blue.
  • Action? Use red.

Caveat: A lot of research confirms the opposite effect: Blue light is stimulating (e.g., Kimberly & James 2009). I’m unsure how to rectify this contradiction. Perhaps the previous research was inaccurate. Or perhaps light exposure reflects a different biological mechanism. If anyone has answer, let me know.

Aggression

Red increases arousal. And arousal increases aggression.
Interestingly, eBay auctions with red backgrounds get higher bids because users behave aggressively:

…in situations in which consumers compete with each other to buy a scarce or a limited-edition product, firms may increase consumers’ willingness-to-pay by exposure to red versus blue backgrounds. (Bagchi & Cheema, 2013, p. 956)

Blue works better to reduce aggression. Even small factors, like clothing, can make a difference (e.g., Frank & Gilovich, 1988).

Perhaps you should wear a blue shirt to your next salary negotiation.

Gender

Females prefer warm colors, yet males prefer cool colors:

The mean hue preference curves for males and females differ significantly. The average female preference rises steeply to a sustained peak in the reddish-purple region, and falls rapidly in the greenish-yellow region, whereas the male preference is shifted towards blue-green. (Hurlbert & Ling, 2007)

Other studies show that males prefer high value and high saturation, whereas females prefer low value and low saturation (Radeloff, 1990).

Color Schemes: How to Choose a Color

A “good” color has three traits:

  • Pretty. Humans suffer from a beauty bias: Attractive people
    seem superior on other traits (e.g., intelligence, sociability, trustworthiness). This mechanism also happens with design. We feel good while looking at beautiful designs, and we assume that this pleasant sensation is based on the content. Therefore, choose colors that are aesthetically pleasing.
  • Appropriate. Most people prefer red to brown, but red isn’t superior in all contexts (e.g., furniture). Colors need to “fit” the context.
  • Practical. Colors can also be practical (e.g., silver vehicles hide dirt and scratches).

The following color schemes can help you find colors that go well together.

1. Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic schemes use the same hue. These colors communicate unity and consistency.

2. Analogous Colors

Analogous schemes use adjacent hues on the color wheel. These colors strengthen the harmony of your design.

3. Complementary Colors

Colors that are across from each other on the color wheel

Complementary schemes use colors on opposing sides of the color wheel. These colors strengthen contrast — which can push attention toward an object in the foreground (e.g., call-to-action).

Contrast can also be aesthetically pleasing:

…warmer figures are preferred on cooler backgrounds, cooler figures are preferred on warmer backgrounds, and figures are generally preferred on backgrounds of contrasting lightness. (Schloss & Palmer, 2011, p. 568)

4. Split-Complementary Colors

Split-complementary schemes uses two colors on the opposite side of a color wheel (which are adjacent to the complementary color). These colors can soften the extreme contrast from a pure complementary scheme.

5. Triadic Colors

Triadic schemes use three colors situated at 120 degrees on the color wheel. These colors are a compromise between the simplicity of monochromatic schemes and the contrast of complementary schemes.

6. Tetradic Colors

Tetradic schemes form a rectangle on the color wheel. These colors communicate variety or complexity.

Putting It All Together

Moving forward, you can use this table to find the best colors.

Just follow these steps:

  • Step 1: Highlight any relevant rows
  • Step 2: Tally the checkmarks in the highlighted rows
  • Step 3: Choose the color(s) with the highest score

References

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Alexander, G. M. (2003). An evolutionary perspective of sex-typed toy preferences: Pink, blue, and the brain. Archives of sexual behavior, 32(1), 7-14.

Bagchi, R., & Cheema, A. (2013). The effect of red background color on willingness-to-pay: the moderating role of selling mechanism. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(5), 947-960.

Banerjee, P., Chatterjee, P., & Sinha, J. (2012). Is it light or dark? Recalling moral behavior changes perception of brightness. Psychological Science, 23(4), 407-409.

Bargh, J. A., & Shalev, I. (2012). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily life. Emotion, 12(1), 154.

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