The Psychology of Color

Exploring cultural associations between colors and emotions.

Color and Mood

Does color affect your mood? Psychologists have said “Absolutely!” to that question for a very long time. The psychological effects of color have such an underpinning in research that the findings of chromology, the psychology of color, are used in designing everything from hotel rooms to cereal packages. In one case that made headlines recently, the psychology of color provoked a storm of controversy.

At the University of Iowa, the visiting team’s locker rooms are painted a soft, feminine pink. The lockers themselves are a dusty rose, the showers have pink shower curtains, and even the urinals are of pink porcelain. The color scheme is a long-standing and well-known tradition that sparked fires of controversy recently when a female professor took exception to the implied insult to women. According to history, though, the choice of “innocence pink” had nothing to do with femininity.

The color was chosen by former Iowa football coach, Hayden Fry, who had read that pink has a calming effect on people. And according to Fry, it works – if not necessarily as intended. In his autobiography, A High Porch Picnic [1] , he writes, “When I talk to an opposing coach before a game and he mentions the pink walls, I know I’ve got him. I can’t recall a coach who has stirred up a fuss about the color and then beat us.”

Pink isn’t the only color that has clear psychological associations. Over the years, researchers have worked to identify exactly what emotions and physical effects are triggered by various colors. Despite the amount of research done in the field and the widespread acceptance of many of its basic theories, chromology is often viewed as an immature discipline, and chromatherapy is seen as alternative medicine. Critics point out that color perception is affected by cultural conditioning, and that color is not perceived alone but in combination with other effects in the environment.

Despite all this, there are some generally recognized associations between color and emotion. The chart below gives those associations and ways in which that color is used.


Red increases the pulse and heart rate, and raises your blood pressure. It increases the appetite by increasing your metabolism, which is why red is such a popular color in restaurants. It is active, aggressive and outspoken. One bank found that their lines moved faster when they increased the use of red in the bank lobby, and in a study of several hundred college students, a researcher found that they responded more quickly to cues under red light than under green light.


The eye uses more chemicals to see the color yellow than to see any other. School studies have shown that students who take tests in yellow rooms actually do 10-15% better on than they do in rooms painted in other colors. On the other hand, babies cry longer and more often in rooms that are painted yellow, and the color is avoided in convalescent homes because it tends to affect minor motor movements. 



Blue is associated with trustworthiness and confidence. Physiologically, blue stimulates the brain to produce eleven different natural tranquilizers, confirming its reputation for making you calmer. Studies into the effects of the color blue have presented some interesting contradictory findings. In one study, weight lifters consistently were able to lift more weight in a room with blue walls. Other studies have shown that people on production lines are more productive when the walls are painted blue, and that students are more able to focus and concentrate on their work in a blue room.



Orange has been related to lifting depression. Physiologically, it seems to stimulate the sexual organs (remember that next time you dress for a date!), and emotionally, it is associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. Like yellow, it seems to stimulate happiness and make you feel better all around.



Green is the most common color used for financial ledgers because it is more soothing to the eyes than pure white. There are also some studies that suggest that green may improve reading speed and comprehension. Green is widely used in institutional settings because research shows that the color is soothing. In fact, a recent study carried out at the University of Georgia on the effects of color on the emotions found that 95% of the students surveyed associated green with positive emotions.

Use of Color

There are also some interesting findings in the use of color in medicine. Since the 1980s, doctors have used blue light to treat neonatal jaundice, and in 1990, scientists reported that blue light had been used to successfully treat addictions, depression and impotence. Red light is being used in photodynamic therapy to destroy cancer cells. It also stimulates the muscles, and is being used to increase performance in some athletes, while blue light seems to enhance performance where steady strength is needed.

Fry, Hayden.



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