What Is Color Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 27, 2022
5 min read

Color quietly plays a major role in how you experience the world. Color can affect your mood, alter your sleep schedule, and even change the way your food tastes. Color psychology is the study of these and many other connections between you and color. 

Color psychology connects colors with emotions and behavior. It reveals how color plays a role in your moods and can even be incorporated into your wellness routines. For businesses, color psychology informs decisions like product packaging and brand logos. 

Ancient origins of color psychology. People have long been fascinated with color and understood its power over moods and well-being. Color was used in ancient Egypt, China, and Greece to evoke emotions, aid in spiritual practices, and treat a variety of conditions. While the nature of color was not yet understood, its powerful effects were evident.

Modern understanding of colors. Color can now be understood in scientific terms. Isaac Newton famously realized that white light is composed of many colors when he placed a prism in sunlight and saw a rainbow emerge on the other side. In his 1704 book Opticks, he presented the color wheel and described how each color is determined by a different wavelength of light.

As scientific breakthroughs from Newton and others unveiled some of the mystery behind color, its power as a therapeutic tool was still being explored. In 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published The Theory of Colors. This important work linked colors with emotions, opening the door for modern color psychology. 

In the 1940s, the connection between people and colors was taken even further. The work of K. Goldstein and others promoted the idea that colors affected human physiology and actions. These connections were developed into the practices of art therapy and color therapy.

Current uses of color psychology. Beyond color therapy, color psychology is used today in advertising and marketing. Branding and product design decisions are made based on how people respond to certain colors. The principles of color psychology are also used in designing optimal work, school, and living spaces. A doctor might paint their waiting room light green to promote calm feelings in their anxious patients. 

If thinking about the color red makes you think about love, you're not alone. In a large cross-cultural survey that included 30 nations and 22 languages, the association of love and other emotions with colors was universal.

In the international study, people were asked to select one emotion to associate with each color. Here are the most commonly associated emotions in the survey:

  • Red means love to 68% of people. 
  • Orange means joy to 44% of people. 
  • Yellow means joy to 52% of people.
  • Green means contentment to 39% of people.
  • Blue means relief to 35% of people. 
  • Turquoise means pleasure to 35% of people.
  • Purple means pleasure to 25% of people.
  • Pink means love to 50% of people. 
  • Brown means disgust to 36% of people. 
  • Black means sadness to 51% of people. 
  • Gray means sadness to 48% of people. 
  • White means relief to 43% of people. 

While the specific feelings can vary individually and by culture, the fact that people connect color with emotion is universal. Since emotions and colors are closely tied together, it isn’t surprising that viewing colors will evoke feelings.

Hue, saturation, and brightness affect how you respond to the color in your environment. Red hues cause the most emotional arousal, blue the least, and green is somewhere in between. A color that is very bright and highly saturated will trigger the strongest emotional response.

Our understanding of color and psychology come together to create a field called color therapy. Color therapy, also known as chromotherapy, is based on the idea that every color on the visible light spectrum has a unique wavelength and vibration. These wavelengths produce electrical impulses or fields of energy that affect the human body. 

Different colors produce different health benefits. A sampling of the health benefits claimed by color therapy include: 

  • Red: stimulating and increases appetite  
  • Orange: improves mood and possible thyroid function 
  • Yellow: increases concentration and possibly treats arthritis
  • Green: a calming color and may promote healthy metabolism  
  • Blue: suppresses the appetite and treats migraine pain 
  • Indigo: purportedly promotes mental health. 
  • Violet: helps with meditation and potentially endocrine issues

Chromotherapy is practiced in alternative health clinics, sometimes using LED lights to create a therapeutic color. It treats anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders. It’s considered an alternative and complementary treatment, meaning it usually supplements other medical treatments you're receiving. 

While the claims of color therapy might seem outlandish, the effects of different light wavelengths on people aren’t controversial. Take, for example, the well-known risk of blue light affecting sleep cycles. You’ve probably heard that you should avoid screens — phones, computers, televisions — right before going to bed. Screens can make it harder to sleep because electronic devices emit so-called blue light.

You might wonder if any light would keep you awake or if there's something special about blue light. Researchers at Harvard compared a group of people exposed to blue light to a group exposed to green light. The group exposed to blue light had significantly less melatonin and a more disrupted sleep cycle than those exposed to green light. In other words, color matters. 

While not all claims of alternative color therapies are widely accepted, there is substantial evidence that color affects our minds and bodies in subtle ways. 

Color psychology research isn’t limited to color therapy, it's also used in marketing, advertising, and product design. One example is pharmaceuticals. 

Drugmakers are interested in what color psychology research says about the therapeutic values of pill colors. Red pills are associated with stimulants and blue are associated with relaxation. The right color choice can create a placebo effect that enhances the effectiveness of the medicine. 

Selecting the right pill color is important even in the clinical trial stage of drug development. Some pill colors are more likely to cause people to miss doses or even stop taking the medicine. Drugmakers know that if they choose the wrong pill color, it could potentially throw off data from clinical trials due to non-compliance.

The use of colors to affect human emotions, health, and actions is an ancient art that modern science is still exploring. If you are feeling down and have the urge to paint your walls yellow or to take a walk in a colorful garden, rest assured that surrounding yourself with the right colors can improve your mood and sense of well-being.