People have been fascinated with color for centuries, with published theories of color psychology dating back to 1810.
Color psychology is the study of colors and how they affect human behavior. It's used in many areas of modern life, most notably in branding and advertising. Proponents of color theory believe that color has the power to affect everything from emotions to how well placebos work, while critics tend to claim it's rooted in pseudoscience.
Goethe, an artist and poet, published his Theory of Colours in 1810. In it, he explored the effects of different colors on emotions.
For example, he believed that yellow brought light and blue brought darkness. While philosophers had a keen interest in Goethe's writings, most of the scientific community dismissed his ideas.
Interest in color psychology continued, however. In 1942, Kurt Goldstein studied the effects of color on people with diseases of the central nervous system, theorizing that exposure to red exaggerated atypical behaviors while exposure to green did the opposite. Other researchers later expanded on this, speculating that these changes were due to the color's wavelengths and whether they elicited an arousing or relaxing response.
In 2005, Russell Hill and Robert Barton noted that many primates assert dominance by displaying bright red areas on their bodies — areas where oxygenated blood is visible under the bare skin. Their research indicates that humans wearing red, such as during a sporting match, may convey dominance and lead to advantages over the competition.
Andrew Elliot and Markus Maier developed the color-in-context theory in 2012. This theory centers on biology and social learning and how some responses to color exist because we see repeated pairings of color and various stimuli. Other theories in this area speculate that our biological understanding of color is only reinforced and not caused by social learning. In various contexts, the same color can mean two different things. For example, wearing red may make someone more sexually attractive, but on the football field, it can inspire fear.
One recent study evaluated the associations between colors and emotions, and the results were consistent with previous research that showed that red has a negative connotation for most people. Study participants associated red with failure and black with negative events, while yellow and white were the two colors most commonly associated with positive words.
Color as it relates to marketing and branding has been widely researched. One study showed that as many as 90 percent of snap judgments people make about a product are based on color alone. Other research shows that the appropriateness of the color plays a bigger role than the color itself. For example, while brown might be detrimental to one product, it signifies ruggedness, so a brown pair of hiking boots is likely to sell better than a hot pink pair.
Multiple studies have looked at the color preferences of different genders. One study showed that blue was the most popular favorite color for males and females. Women also listed purple as a top favorite, but no men did. Other research shows that men are drawn to bold colors and prefer colors that are mixed with black, while women prefer softer colors and those mixed with white.
Color affects our preferences. For example, people associate food color with taste. Red is commonly associated with sweetness, like strawberries, whereas yellow is associated with tart citrus. One study showed that green is often associated with unripe food. Research on colors in the workplace shows that while red can cause anger and tension, it is also associated with increased performance. Blue causes fatigue and encourages relaxation, while white led to nausea and headaches more than other colors.
Studies on color psychology are criticized for many reasons. Some studies are difficult to recreate, and some theories are too broad to suggest specific real-world applications.
Color has many properties, and recreating the same color from study to study is difficult and can affect the results. Finally, many theories about color psychology fail to account for things like preference and situational factors that can alter how study participants react to colors.
The effects of all colors depend on other variables, including age, gender, culture, and the hue presented. Study into color psychology is very complex, and the science is not yet established. Future research incorporating these factors may fully uncover the usefulness of color psychology and how to apply it to everyday life.
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