Color Psychology: Can Colors Really Influence Human Behavior?

What impact do colors have on us? Does yellow make you feel more energetic while blue makes you feel relaxed?

Linking color and emotions seems to be a widespread practice across cultures and through time. Even now, practices like color therapy are rooted in that link while the business and design worlds strive to use colors to directly impact consumer behavior. But just how much legitimacy does this use of color have? Can colors really affect how we feel and can that effect be planned?

Color Psychology

One field of study that seeks to find answers to these questions is color psychology, or the study of how colors impact human emotions, moods, and behavior. Let’s look at the history of color psychology, some modern findings in this field, and address the question of whether businesses and organizations should seek to leverage color psychology in their branding and advertising efforts.

The history of color psychology

The idea that color directly affects the mind and body has been around for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks practiced chromotherapy and used “colored minerals, stones, crystals, salves and dyes as remedies and painted treatment sanctuaries in various colors.” It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that the psychological impact of colors was more rigorously explored.

One of the earliest works on color psychology was published in 1810 by German poet, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Titled “Theory of Colours,” the book featured Goethe’s ideas about colors, including how they could evoke certain emotions. However, because his theories were rooted in opinion rather than scientific evidence, the scientific community at the time largely dismissed his theories. Still, the concept of color psychology grew to be a point of interest among some philosophers and physicists.

German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein hypothesized that red and yellow were stimulating colors that could produce forceful action, whereas green and blue were relaxing and produced calm and stable action.

In 1942, German psychiatrist Kurt Goldstein expanded on Goethe’s ideas with his own clinical observations, proposing that color produces physiological reactions in the body that are apparent in “people’s emotions, cognitive focus, and motor behavior.” From his observations, he hypothesized that red and yellow were stimulating colors that could produce forceful action, whereas green and blue were relaxing and produced calm and stable action.

Goldstein’s vaguely formulated ideas were ultimately unable to be validated by other researchers at the time. Significantly, though, his experiment kept the momentum going, further popularizing the field of color psychology. Since then, many others have continued to conduct studies, surveys, and research into the psychological effect of color.

Modern findings: What’s the verdict?

Today, there is a growing body of research that largely confirms the theory that color can directly affect human emotions, from causing people to “feel warm, cool, calm, invited, relaxed, or uninvited” to physically impacting skin conductance and heart rates. However, there’s not yet a consensus on how it works and just how powerful the influence of color is on real-world behavior.

What we do know is that the effect of color on emotions is deeply personal and can be influenced by individual experiences and cultural backgrounds. White, for instance, is often associated with purity or innocence in the West but is used as a symbol of mourning in China.

There’s not yet a consensus on how color works and just how powerful its influence is on real-world behavior.

Ultimately, any declared associations between a specific color and emotion rely mostly on anecdotal evidence, making it impossible to treat findings as broadly applicable. Still, researchers continue to study whether links between colors and emotions are universal or whether any general trends or conclusions can be observed.

One example is the International Color-Emotion Association Survey, an ongoing project that continues to accept data from participants around the world. In its 2020 results report, researchers actually found few cultural differences in the emotions that global participants associated with certain colors:

“…many color-emotion associations seemed universal. Most participants agreed that pink was associated with love and pleasure, yellow with joy and amusement, or that black was the saddest color…all colors apart from purple showed a very high agreement across countries.”

Considering how widespread it is to link colors with certain emotions, then, it’s unsurprising that the psychology of color continues to influence business decisions today.

Color psychology in advertising & branding

While the findings aren’t black-and-white, there’s enough evidence to suggest that color psychology can still be used to some business advantage. At the very least, there should be some consideration given to the potential effects of color when used prominently in brand design or an advertising campaign.

This starts with equipping yourself with knowledge about general color associations, as well as cultural nuances that apply to your target audience. What characteristics do you want people to associate with your brand? For your target audience, what colors are traditionally linked to those traits?

For your target audience, what colors are traditionally linked to the traits you want associated with your brand?

You’ll also want to consider the context in which your brand exists. For example, one survey found that the industry has a big impact on which color scheme consumers find most trustworthy.

Showing consumers six different hypothetical logo designs across six different industries, the survey revealed that the “most-fitting” color scheme depended on the industry, even when the keywords used to describe the logos were nearly identical. Shades of green were a clear winner for financial services, which had logos described as “modern, boring (a good thing apparently), professional,” while yellow and gray were most preferred for technology logos, which were described as “modern, innovative, professional.”

Similarly, by including color as a variable when testing different designs with your audience, you bring yourself one step closer to creating designs that have the desired emotional effect.

How to leverage color psychology for your business

It’s important to remember that color psychology is a tool and, like any tool, it has limitations. Because the effects of color can vary due to cultural and individual experiences, there’s no guarantee that the colors you select will have the intended effect on everyone in your audience.

It is best to think of color psychology as a starting point—a way to help you get your bearings on the potential effects of color. Colors are indeed a powerful element in any brand and they do have the ability to influence our emotions, but we need to consider the full picture when it comes to what resonates with our particular target. In the end, color is only one part of the equation.

That said, it is important not to underestimate the power that color can have. Color should not be an afterthought. There is good reason to test colors with your target when time and budget allows since your target audience is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes value and meaning as it relates to your offer.

For more on how to research questions like this see this article on customer personas.

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Photo by Vitolda Klein

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