Seeing red? Green with envy? Feeling blue? We’re all familiar with these expressions, but probably haven’t thought much about why colours go so hand-in-hand with our emotions. The importance of colour is something which is taught to us from a very early age. Along with recognising letters and numbers, colour becomes an important aspect of our understanding of the world around us. So can different colours really elicit certain emotions from us? And why does colour have such an influence in our lives?
We are all likely to have a favourite colour. A colour which, for some reason, we find ourselves more drawn to. Whether you favour a fiery red or a calming blue, your chosen colour may reflect your personality or become part of your identity. Colour is of vital importance to a range of our everyday activities, from recognising objects to communication; advertising to health and safety measures. Quite simply, without colour, our understanding of the world around us would be very different.
So why does colour play such an important role in our world? Quite simply, it may be that our responses to certain colours dictate the role they play in certain aspects of our lives.
For example, all road-users know that the red traffic light means “Stop” and the green light means “Go”.
We are exposed to this from an early age, so we learn to accept that this is how traffic lights work. If we consider some of the properties of red and green, however, we may begin to understand a bit more about why these colours were likely to have been used in the first place to represent their respective road signals. When we think of the colour red, we are considering a very strong, powerful colour which has connotations with love and attraction as well as aggression and fear. Red therefore, could be described as a very emotional colour, which is why it may be the ideal colour to choose to convey an important message, such as a “Stop” signal or a warning of danger being nearby. It demands attention, which makes it ideal when communicating an important message. Green, meanwhile, is generally considered to be a much calmer and more positive colour, making it ideal for communicating that it is okay to continue your car journey, or indeed your walk across the road, through the traffic or pedestrian lights.
When we think of different colours, we will likely find ourselves making associations with these colours. For example, I can vividly remember being at primary school and seeing green ticks and red crosses when my schoolwork was returned to me from my teachers.
Therefore, from a very early age, in relation to my school work, my understanding has been that the colour green is positive, and the colour red is negative. Given that school was very important to me, this may partly explain why my favourite colour is green, and why I don’t generally favour red as I find it quite an intimidating colour. If I consider some of the words used to describe cold colours such as blue, green and purple- for example “calming”, “relaxing”, “peaceful”- I see more of my own personality within these associations than I do with the “vibrant”, “strong”, “powerful”, “exciting” associations that come with exposure to warm colours such as red, orange and yellow. Perhaps this explains why I am personally more drawn to cold colours.
This is an interesting concept and raises one of the main limitations of much of the research done on colour psychology- an individual’s associations and responses to colour are very much based on their own personal experiences of the colour. Different personalities, different childhood experiences and different cultures may come into play when we think of colours and what they mean to us. For example, in our society, black is the colour of mourning. However, in some Eastern countries, it is white which is used in times of grieving. Closer to home, with colour being so important to football teams, how many people might we find who favour the colour green simply because they support Celtic Football Club, or blue if they support Rangers Football Club? This gives us an example of an aspect of our culture in which colour plays a vital role, and is a central aspect of identity- Celtic wear green and Rangers wear blue. You are unlikely to find someone living in Glasgow who isn’t aware of this, regardless of whether they enjoy football or not.
So what are some of the most common associations that arise from exposure to certain colours? Much of the published research on this topic seems to agree with a study carried out by Kaya et al. (2004), who tested a number of principle hues (red, yellow, green, purple and blue), intermediate hues (yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue, red-purple), and achromatic colours (black, white and grey). The study found that there was a higher number of positive responses to the principal hues compared to the intermediate hues and the achromatic colours. Furthermore, the study found high numbers of reports of the following emotions being evoked from each colour:
Green– relaxation, calmness, happiness, comfort, peace, nature
Yellow– lively, energetic, happiness, excitement, flowers, summer
Blue– relaxation, calmness, loneliness
Red– love, romance, fighting, blood, Satan
Purple– relaxation, calmness, royalty
White– innocence, peace, purity, cleanliness, loneliness
Black– wealth, power, sadness, depression, fear, death, mourning
Grey– sadness, depression, boredom
Perhaps when reading through the above list, you found yourself agreeing with the majority of these associations, regardless of whether they were positive or negative. Again this raises another interesting issue: colours can have both positive and negative connotations. While I previously mentioned that I found the colour red quite an intimidating colour, I also find it a very striking colour. While calmer colours such as blues and greens appeal to my personality more, to me red represents a more daring and confident side of my character that I often wish I could explore more easily.
So what are the ramifications of colour psychology and does it have a place in our modern society? Ancient cultures such as the Egyptians and the Chinese, believed in the importance of colours to such an extent that they regularly used colour therapy, or chromotherapy, in treatments for various illnesses. For example, red was used to increase circulation, blue was believed to soothe and treat pain and yellow was thought to stimulate the nerves and purify the body. More modern research takes a slightly more sceptical view of the influence of colours on the human mind and body. While the biggest limitation of the subject of colour psychology seems to be that it is very difficult to study due to the subjective nature of our experiences of colour, there are some interesting findings from research into the topic which indicate that while not entirely conclusive, it is a subject which certainly requires some attention.
Studies have found, for example, that being exposed to the colour red prior to an exam had a negative impact on test performance. Blue-coloured streetlights were found to lead to a reduction in crime rates for the areas being studied. Warm-coloured placebo pills were rated as more effective than cool-coloured placebo pills. While much of this evidence cannot be used to prove conclusively that the findings of the studies were due to colour alone, it certainly gives us something to think about.
To conclude, the field of colour emotion is one that is very much in need of further study if we are to gain a better understanding of our emotional responses to colours and what this means for us as part of a modern society. It may be of more use to us to consider our own personal views on the colours around us- which colours do we like? Which colours do we dislike? Which colours make us feel happy? Sad? Angry? When it comes to colour, like so many areas of our emotional wellbeing, it is perhaps through knowing and understanding ourselves better that we will be able to understand our world and our experiences.
So…what is your favourite colour?
Written by Jennifer McElroy
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Kaya, N., Epps, H. (2004). Relationship between Color and Emotion: A Study of College Students. Psychology and Behavioural Sciences Collection: Volume 38, Issue 3