Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Colour and emotion

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Colour and emotion:
What emotions are associated with different colours and why?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Emotion is defined as a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. It involves a subjective, conscious experience which is characterised by psychophysiological expressions, biological reactions and mental states (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2009). Paul Ekman recognised six universal basic human emotions which could be recognised through facial expressions across a culturally diverse globe (Ekman, Paul, 1992). These include anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise (Ekman, P, 1992.

Isaac Newton discovered colour through the study of light. He found that when pure light passes through a prism, it separates into distinct colours (WebExhibits). Colour is characterised as the property possessed by an object which produces different sensations on the eye as a result of the way it reflects or produces light (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2009). Each of these colours is made up by a single electromagnetic wavelength and cannot be separated into any further colours (WebExhibits). The stronger the wavelength, the stronger the colour appears (WebExhibits). Further studies have found that when different wavelengths were combined, an alternative colour would result (e.g when red and yellow wavelengths are combined they portray an orange colour) (WebExhibits).

The basic colour wheel consists of a visual representation of six colours and includes blue, red, yellow, green, orange and purple (Colour Warqx). These colours are arranged around a black or white centre on the colour wheel which represents all colours absorbed (black), or all wavelengths of light (white) (Colour Warqx). There is evidence to suggest that colour can symbolise a particular emotion as well as create or change an emotion.

The wheel contains ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ colours which are recognised universally (Colour Warqx). Yellow, orange and red are described as warm colours while blue, green and purple are described as cold colours (Colour Warqx). Warm colours are said to create feelings ranging from warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility while cold colours are said to create feelings of calmness but can also provoke feelings of sadness and indifference (Colour Warqx).

Today colour is used to elicit emotion by many people including chefs, marketers, designers and artists. Chefs use multiple colours in cuisines to make meals seem more appealing and appetising where marketers use different colours in advertisement to entice customers to buy their products. Designers use colour to create appealing and sellable houses where research has shown that 60% of the choice made by buyers has something to do with the colours presented in the house (Conversion XL, 2012). Artists also use colour to create an emotion in their artwork and to help convey the meaning they are trying to portray.

History[edit | edit source]

The idea that colour is more than just a visual stimulus dates back hundreds of years. Colour was used as an expression of life and death and was associated with the supernatural by many ancient civilisations, having significance beyond just a sensory delight (Popova, M. 2012).

Chromo therapy: Chromo therapy involves therapy through the exposure to different colours. This was a method used by ancient Egyptians and Indians, and has continued to be practiced in areas of China. Colours were said to have different effects and healing properties on the mind and body (Popova, M. 2012).

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the first theorists to study the relationship between emotion and colour. He published the Theory of Colours in 1810 which was based around the nature, function and psychology of colours (Popova, M. 2012). Goethe described the characteristics of six colours and theorised why certain emotions could be linked to them. He described the colour yellow as being the ‘closest colour to light’, carrying with it the ‘nature of brightness’ with a ‘serene, gay, softly exciting character’ (Popova, M. 2012). He explained that the colour could be easily manipulated (where the slightest touch of blue will turn the colour into green), which could result in a contaminated and less agreeable effect (Popova, M. 2012). However, when a small amount of red is added to the colour, it intensifies as it is more representative of the colour of fire and gives a resulting impression of warmth and gladness (Popova, M. 2012). When enough red is added to yellow, it creates an orange colour, which further intensifies the feeling of excitement. Red was described by the theorist as being strong and bold, representing gravity and dignity at the same time as representing grace and attractiveness (Popova, M. 2012). Goethe described blue as relating to coldness, and unlike yellow, it has a degree of darkness to it (Popova, M. 2012). He explained that while blue painted rooms seem larger, they also have a general feel of emptiness and coldness (Popova, M. 2012). When red is added to the colour of blue, it becomes slightly more excitable. However, unlike the enlivening excitement seen when red is added to yellow, purple can be associated with a more unpleasant and disturbing emotion (Popova, M. 2012). Goethe described the colour as having something lively in it which was not gladness. Goethe explained that when yellow and blue are mixed evenly, they create a colour that the eye and mind see as distinct. He described that the beholder has no wish to imagine a state beyond the colour, and so living spaces are often painted green.

Colour Symbolises Emotion[edit | edit source]

Evidence suggests that colour can be used to symbolise emotion. Recent research has suggested a link between colour and emotion, where particular colours have been used to describe different emotions. One study found that participants associated happiness with yellow or orange (69%), surprise with yellow, white, whitish blue, and green (81%), anger with red (55%) and black (10%) (Oberascher, Leonhard & Gallmetzer, Michael, 2003). Disgust was associated with green and brown (50%), fear with yellow, red (total 32%) and black (13%) (Oberascher, L & Gallmetzer, M, 2003). Sadness was associated with grey, black and deep purple (53%) while content was associated with blue (48%), green (10%), brown and black (total 20%) (Oberascher, L & Gallmetzer, M, 2003). Although this association was found, there may be both personal and cultural differences in the symbolism of colour across the globe.

The Colour Inkblot Storytelling Method[edit | edit source]

The Colour Inkblot Storytelling Method is of common usage in modern psychological therapy. An alternative to expressing emotions through language is seen through creativity measures such as drawing. This is particularly useful in understanding the emotions of children, who may not have the knowledge of how to express themselves verbally, or may have a cultural resistance to speaking about emotions (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007). The use of art therapy techniques have become increasingly common by practitioners to explore the emotions and perceptions of children, particularly those suffering from mental or physical problems (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007). The Colour Inkblot Therapeutic Storytelling method (CITS) involves selecting coloured ink, creating ink blots, and creating a story in relation to these colours and shapes (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007). The way that colour is used within these measures can reflect and portray a particular emotional state internalised in the artist (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007). Usually, colours which are bright express positive emotions while dark colours emphasise negative qualities (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007). However, research has found that colour preference can also have an effect on the colours used in the measure and the emotions calculated (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007). In this case, least preferred colours were related to negative emotions while preferred colours were related to positive emotions (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007). This suggests that using colour to express emotion is often personal and subjective and any interpretation of colour should include colour preference knowledge (Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007).

How colour effects our emotions[edit | edit source]

There are several theories suggesting how colour effects our emotions.

Innate Reactions: Evidence has shown that different colours can have different effects on the physical body (including the ability the colour red has in increasing heart rate as previously discussed). Research has shown that ‘visible wavelengths of light reach the pineal and pituitary glands through neurochemical channels independent of the optic system’ (Anishka. A. Hettiarachchi, Nimal De Silva, 2012). This suggests that colours can have a direct effect on the entire endocrine system. The pituitary gland found in the brain functions in hormone regulation and production (Anishka. A. Hettiarachchi, Nimal De Silva, 2012). Hormones influence our emotions and the way we feel, so it makes sense that colours can promote and change our moods (Anishka. A. Hettiarachchi, Nimal De Silva, 2012).

Learned Associations: Learned associations of colour may trigger an emotional response as we have become accustomed to seeing certain colours and the results they bring (Anishka. A. Hettiarachchi, Nimal De Silva, 2012. This idea is backed by the theory of “nurture” where it is argued that “all human associations are learnt from the environment through their personal experiences” (Anishka. A. Hettiarachchi, Nimal De Silva, 2012).This theory may include our reaction to red through the observation and association of fire trucks and ambulances to danger. People may also have personal learned associations to particular colours, for example a colour may remind you of a particular person or event that upset you, so it makes you feel upset when you are exposed to it (Anishka. A. Hettiarachchi, Nimal De Silva, 2012. As we mature, we become more conscious of learned reactions as opposed to innate reactions (Anishka. A. Hettiarachchi, Nimal De Silva, 2012. An example of the effects of leaned associations revolving around colour includes the advertisement and sales rates of particular billiard tables in America. When advertisements failed to encourage buyers to purchase green billiard tables, Birran found it was a matter of colour psychology (Holdsworth, Anthony. 2005). He suggested that the green tables had an association with cheap pool halls and gambling dens and he advised that the felt be changed to a soft purplish tone (Holdsworth, Anthony. 2005). The company complied and the sales of the tables dramatically increased (Holdsworth, Anthony. 2005).

Colour can produce and Change Emotions: Using this knowledge to benefit your life[edit | edit source]

Colour Psychology Definition: Colour psychology is concerned with the affective, cognitive and behavioural responses seen as a result of exposure to colour (The American Heritage Dictionary, 2009). Much of this theory is derived from the work of Goethe as previously mentioned. The stability of these conclusions results in a convincing argument. There are four primary colours involved in colour psychology including red, yellow, green and blue (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). These colours are said to have affect on our mind, body and emotions. Each of the colours has been described as producing both negative and positive emotional reactions. Current colour psychology relates the following colours to such reactions.

Red: Red is considered a warm colour and is portrayed by the strongest wavelength (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). For this reason, it is known to produce the strongest affect on the observer, where the colour appears bright and engaging (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). While its positive effects include feelings of courage, strength, warmth, energy, survival, stimulation, intimacy, masculinity and excitement, it can also have negative effects which include defiance, aggression, visual impact and strain (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Evidence has shown the colour red to have an effect on the observer’s heart rate and can activate the “flight or fight” defence instinct (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). This may be due to a learned association with the colour over time. From back in times of cavemen, we have associated red with the colour of fire and danger (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Even in modern times, red is often used to paint emergency service transportation such as fire trucks and ambulances. Because of its association with aggression, the term “seeing red” has been created to express extreme anger. Extensive use of the colour would be least beneficial for individuals suffering from high blood pressure, heart conditions, sleep problems, epilepsy or asthma (Wright, Angela. 2008-13).

Blue: Blue has been described as a cool colour across the globe representing coolness, calmness, serenity, efficiency and intelligence (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Strong blues are said to stimulate clear thought while softer blues are said to calm the mind and aid concentration (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Studies have found that the colour can alleviate stress through its ability to lower the heart rate and temperature of the body (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). For this reason, as well as causing little strain to the eye, the colour has often been used in working environments to create a quiet mood and encourage concentration (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). It may be for these reasons that researches have found that people tend to spend more time in blue rooms in comparison to red rooms (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Pale shades of blue can also be included in the bedroom where they will promote relaxation and help to induce sleep. Although the colour blue can be used effectively in some situations, the colour can also create feelings of depression, coldness and isolation if used in the wrong environment (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). For this reason, the popular saying of “feeling the blues” has arisen, describing a depressed emotional state. Further studies have shown the colour to have a negative impact on appetite, as it is the least occurring colour found in the foods which we consume (Wright, Angela. 2008-13).

Yellow: The colour yellow has been described as the strongest colour psychologically, having particular effect on our emotions (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Yellow can create positive feelings of optimism, confidence, high self-esteem, extraversion, emotional strength and creativity (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). However, the colour can also promote feelings of irrationality, fear, emotional fragility, depression, anxiety and even suicide as it is said to activate the anxiety centre of the brain when over used (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). This is perhaps because of the amount of eye strain caused by the colour over long periods of time as it is the closest colour to light (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Research has found that babies are more likely to cry in rooms that are painted yellow, while adults are more likely to behave aggressively in a yellow environment (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). It is essential that the right amount of yellow and the right tone of yellow is used to achieve a positive reaction. Effective use of the colour may include entrance halls and activity rooms although it is advised that the colour not be used in rooms designed for sleeping as it can make us feel unrelaxed.

Green: The colour green is associated with balance and closely related to nature (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). When used correctly, the colour can stimulate feelings of harmony, refreshment, universal love, rest, restoration, reassurance, environmental awareness, equilibrium and peace (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). It is for this reason that the “green room” was invented for people awaiting talk shows to be shown through the media (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). However, the colour green can also have a negative effect if used extensively or in the wrong environment. These effects include boredom, stagnation, blandness and enervation (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Green can be used in most areas around the house including areas of relaxation. Other colours should also be included to avoid inactivity and indecision.

Other colours including violet, orange, pink, grey, black, white and brown are also said to have some affect over our emotional states. These are as follows:

Violet: Violet is produced by the shortest wavelength and is said to be a spiritual and exotic colour as it is rarely found in our natural environment (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). The colour evokes spiritual awareness, containment, vision, luxury, authenticity and truth. Its negative effects include introversion, decadence, suppression and inferiority (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Violet is said to take awareness to a higher level of thought, encouraging contemplation and meditation (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Effective use of the colour around the house would include areas designed for worship as well as bedrooms.

Orange: Orange has positive qualities including vitality, high self esteem, comfort, warmth, security, sensuality, passion, abundance and fun; however its negative qualities include deprivation, frustration, frivolity and immaturity (Wright, Angela. 2008-13).The colour is portrayed through a mixture of red and yellow, affecting both our physical and emotional selves. The colour is said to focus our minds on physical comforts such as warmth, food and shelter as well as sensuality (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Orange can be used effectively in any activity or creative area in the home. Evidence suggests that orange can also stimulate hunger, so it may be a useful colour to include in areas designed for eating, such as the dining room or food courts (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). The colour can also be used to help eliminate feelings of depression and low self esteem however too much use of the colour can create negative effects on our emotional states (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). For this reason, it is advised that the colour not be included in areas designed for relaxation, such as the bedroom, or areas that may promote stress such as working or studying environments.

Pink: Pink is suggested to have positive effects of physical tranquillity, nurture, warmth, femininity, love and sexuality (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Its negative effects include inhibition, emotional claustrophobia, emasculation and physical weakness (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). The colour is portrayed through the combination of both red and white meaning that it can affect us physically, however unlike the colour red, it soothes as opposed to stimulates (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Previous research has documented psychological and physiological responses to the colour pink. Significant findings were found by Alexander Schauss in the late 1960’s. Previous research had been conducted which provided evidence that colour choice reflects a corresponding change in the endocrine system which produces hormones, ultimately having an effect on emotional states (Schauss, Alexander). The aim of Schauss’ study was to determine whether colour could create emotional and hormonal changes by using various wavelengths of light and studying the effects on the endocrine system. Schauss began experimenting on himself, coming to the conclusion that he was most affected by a particular shade of pink. This colour was labelled P-618. His study found that by looking at an 18 x 24 inch card painted in P-618, he could lower the heart rate, pulse and respiration more so than with other colours (Schauss, Alexander). He then wanted to put this theory into practice and convinced the directors of a correctional institute in Washington to paint some of the prison cells in P-618 to determine the effects it might have on prisoners (Schauss, Alexander). After implementing the colour, the correctional facility found that the rates of assault plummeted where it was reported that “Since the initiation of this procedure on 1 March 1979, there have been no incidents of erratic or hostile behaviour during the initial phase of confinement.”( Schauss, Alexander). Prisoners only needed an exposure to the colour of 15 minutes to ensure that the potential for aggressive behaviour was reduced (Schauss, Alexander). This is an important characteristic, as over exposure to the colour pink is said to create feelings of frustration over time (Wright, Angela. 2008-13).

Grey: Grey is said to create feelings of psychological neutrality although it can also create a lack of confidence and energy, depression and hibernation (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Pure grey is said to be the only colour which has no direct psychological properties, although the colour has been described as suppressive (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). When exposed to only the colour grey, we recognise a lack of colour and we are instinctively conditioned to distance ourselves from it (such as when we stay inside on a grey day) (Wright, Angela. 2008-13).

Black: Black has an association with sophistication, mysteriousness, glamour, security, emotional safety and efficiency (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). It is associated with silence and the infinite dark sky. Its negative qualities include suppression, coldness, threat and heaviness (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Black is a combination of all wavelengths of colour absorbed (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). The colour reflects no wavelengths, and for this reason it can appear threatening (many people are afraid of the dark, witches wear black (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). The colour also creates a perception of seriousness (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Black can be used with other colours to enhance the energy of them. For this reason it can be used effectively as picture frames and lamp bases (Wright, Angela. 2008-13).

White: White is all wavelengths of colour totally reflected (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). The colour creates a perception of hygiene, sterility, clarity, purity, cleanliness, simplicity, sophistication and efficiency (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Its negative qualities include the creation of coldness and unfriendliness through its heavy strain on the eye (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). White can create space in a room although too much of the colour can be intimidating (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). For this reason, most people who have white walls in their homes usually use an ‘off-white’ colour, containing a small amount of yellow or brown. The colour white can be broken up with other colours, plants and pictures and can be used to make other colours appear brighter.

Brown: The colour brown creates feelings of seriousness, and warmth whilst also reflecting nature and earthiness (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). The colour is usually made up by a combination of red, yellow and black, having similar traits to the colour black although it is warmer and softer (Wright, Angela. 2008-13). Because of the addition of both red and yellow, many people have found the colour to be supportive as opposed to the suppressive nature that black can have (Wright, Angela. 2008-13).

But wait.... Saturation and Brightness may be more important than the actual colour[edit | edit source]

More recent research conducted by Valdez and Mehrabian found that saturation and brightness of colour had more of an effect on the individual’s emotion than the colour itself (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994). The study of colour and emotion was conducted by Valdez and Mehrabian in 1994. The researchers asked 250 participants to rate 76 colours on a semantic differential scale (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994). This scale is used to measure the connotative meanings of objects, events, concepts and in this case, colours (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994). The connotations are used to derive the attitude towards the given object, event or concept. Valdez and Mehrabian presented participants with a colour and asked them to rate their resulting feelings on a scale including measures from “happy” to “cruel” and “frustrated” to “fascinated”. Colours were then mapped onto a “Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance scale”. The researchers found that saturation and brightness dominated emotional responses to colour (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994). The actual colour that was presented to participants which is normally considered to be a predominant variable accounted for less than 30% of the variance (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994). Although such results were found, the limitations of the study must be considered. Due to the high number of colours involved in the study, not all participants saw all of, or the same colours, so the researchers were forced to collate data across participants, thereby losing information on individual differences (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994). There was also concern that any effects on the colour may have been lessened by the effects of having different saturation levels (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994). For example, when shades of brown are shown at a low saturation level, they may share a hue co-ordinate with the colour yellow (Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Previous research has established a link between colour and emotion. Colour can be used in clothing, decoration, foods, stained water, lights, plants and imagination to benefit our body, mind and emotions. Researchers have argued that we tend to be drawn to colours that we need, for example, seeking out blue when we are feeling stressed. It is important to expose yourself to those colours which will help you to create a healthy balance of emotion. Over exposure, and exposure to the wrong tones of colour can have a negative effect on emotions, so it is also important to observe your reactions to colours and identify whether or not you like their effects. Small amounts of colour can be used to create a mood and do not require one to buy new furniture or a new wardrobe. Simple changes such as the inclusion of coloured cushions or flowers in a lounge room, or wearing a coloured scarf can be effective enough in helping one to create positive emotions. Even exposing yourself to a coloured card for 15 minutes can have an effect on the way you feel. If you enjoy the results, you can begin to make bigger changes if you feel them necessary. By using colours that you like and that remind you of a pleasant experience, you can create feelings of happiness through the theory of learned associations. Similarly, if a colour reminds you of a negative experience, you can try to reduce the amount of that colour in your environment.

In saying this, we have already established that the relationship between colour and emotion can be affected by personal, situational and cultural experiences, so it can have a different effect on different individuals. Evidence has also suggested that age, gender and colour preference can have influence over the resulting emotions after exposure. To gain a better understanding of the effects each colour has on our emotions, as well as validate theories that seem outdated, more research must be conducted. Further research on the affects of saturation and brightness must also be conducted to come to a reliable conclusion distinguishing whether or not they have a larger affect on emotion than the actual colour presented.

References[edit | edit source]

Ekman, Paul, Are there basic emotions? Psychological Review, Vol 99(3), Jul 1992, 550-553. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.99.3.550

Hettiarachchi, Anishka, De Silva, Nimal Colour associated emotional and behavioural responses: A study on the associations emerged via imagination. Built - Environment - Sri Lanka, Vol. 11 , Issue 01 : 2012: 21-27

Holdsworth, Anthony. 2005. Basic colour theory

Oberascher, Leonhard and Gallmetzer, Michael. 2003. Colour and emotion. Psychology of Architechture and Design, Austria

Popova, Maria, 2012 “Colour itself is a degree of darkness.” Goethe on the Psychology of Color and Emotion Mapping emotion to color Niels A. Nijdam Human Media Interaction University of Twente, the Netherlands

Schauss, Alexander, Tranquilizing Effect of Color Reduces Aggressive Behavior and Potential Violence Valdez P, Mehrabian A. 1994. Effects of color on emotions. J Exp Psychol Gen. 1994 Dec;123(4):394-409.

Tamotsu Sakaki, Yuanhong Ji, Sylvia Z. Ramirez, 2007, Clinical application of color inkblots in therapeutic storytelling, The Arts in Psychotherapy Volume 34, Issue 3, 2007, Pages 208–215

Wright, Angela. 2008-13. Colour affects, Psychological properties of colours,

Colour Warqx, Colour wheel,

Conversion XL, 2012, 9 things to know about influencing purchasing decisions

WebExhibits, Colour Vision and Art, Newton and the Colour Spectrum

WebExhibits, How does the brain interpret colour? Seeing colour.

The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.