Psychological Symbolism of Colors

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    Landmark Research

    • Robert Gerard's 1957 doctoral thesis titled "Differential Effects of Colored Lights on Psychophysiological Functions" measured the physical effects that color has on the human body, as well as the study participants' emotions associated with color. As explained in the book "Color Psychology and Color Therapy" by Faber Birren, Gerard found that blood pressure increases when a person is under red light and decreases when under blue light. Correspondingly, participants reported feeling disturbed in red light and relaxed in blue light.

    Physiological Effects

    • White light is actually a combination of a spectrum of colors, and each color vibrates at a different wavelength of energy. Warmer colors such as red, orange and yellow vibrate faster than cooler colors such as green, blue and violet. The human eye processes color through electrical impulses that pass through the part of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system, which governs unconscious functions such as breathing and heartbeat. This energy connection between color vibrations and the nervous system can explain why, for example, exposure to red before taking a test impairs performance and why exposure to greenery promotes recovery of hospital patients.

    Psychological Effects

    • Although scientific studies have concentrated mostly on the psychological effects of red, blue and green, over the years, popular psychology has expanded on the concept of color symbolism by assigning universal interpretations for other colors as well, based on the degree of warmth or coolness. For example, yellow allegedly inspires confidence and optimism; orange is associated with physical comfort and security; pink represents love; violet reportedly enhances spiritual awareness; and brown is a symbol of earthiness. But not all people react universally. For example, researchers April S. Odom and Shannon S. Sholtz, of Missouri Western State University note that in one study examining children's emotional responses to color, one girl reported that yellow made her feel sad, not happy, because her mother had told her that she did not look good in yellow clothing.


    • Color psychology is applied in health care settings with the intention of calming people. In commercial settings, the intention is to stimulate people. The Pantone Color Think Tank reports that casino patrons take higher risks when gambling under red light than under blue light. And in retail stores, red and other warm colors attract attention and encourage impulse purchasing. A study led by Joseph A. Bellizzi found that customers even judged merchandise in a red environment to be more up to date than merchandise in a cool color environment. To help marketers use color in profitable ways, professional organizations such as the Color Marketing Group disseminate information and resources to their members worldwide.

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