How Colors Affect Human Behavior

Festival Goers Covered in Colorful Powder
wundervisuals/E+/Getty Images

Color psychology is the study of how colors affect human behavior, mood, or physiological processes. Colors are thought to influence our buying choices, our feelings, and even our memories. Ideas related to color psychology are heavily implemented in the areas of marketing and design. Companies choose colors that they believe will motivate customers to buy their products and improve brand awareness. Colors have even been used in color therapy techniques to treat various diseases.

Color Perception

Color psychology is a relatively new area of study that faces several challenges. A major difficulty that arises when investigating this topic is determining how to actually measure the effects of color. Color perception is very subjective, as different people have different ideas about and responses to colors. Several factors influence color perception, which makes it difficult to determine if color alone impacts our emotions and actions.

Factors that influence color perception include age, gender, and culture. In some cultures, for example, white is associated with happiness and purity. In a situation where a woman is wearing a white wedding dress, is she happy because she is influenced by the color white or because she is getting married? To someone from a different culture, wearing white may signify sadness. This is because in those cultures, white is associated with grief and death. These and similar factors must be considered when investigating the influence of colors on human emotions and behavior.

Color Associations

While no direct cause and effect relationship between color and behavior has been found, some generalizations about colors and what they may symbolize have been determined. Colors including red, yellow, and orange are considered warm colors and are thought to stimulate excited emotions.

Cool colors are found on the blue end of the visible light spectrum and include blue, violet, and green. These colors are associated with calmness, coolness, and tranquility.

Color symbolism is often employed in the field of graphic design and publishing to evoke certain emotions. Whether influenced by age, gender, culture, or not, research studies indicate that colors do have some impact on physiology, behavior, and mood in some individuals.


Red Python
Red python snake coiled, Indonesia. kuritafsheen/RooM/Getty Images

Ideas, attitudes, and emotions associated with the color red include:

  • Warning
  • Love
  • Courage
  • Aggression
  • Rage

Red is the longest wavelength of light on the visible light spectrum. In western cultures, red is associated with power, control, and strength. It also signals danger and triggers alertness. Red on traffic lights signal drivers to be alert and to stop. Some animals, such as snakes, have red coloration to indicate that they are dangerous and deadly.

Red also signifies passion and invokes the fight or flight response. This instinct is triggered by the brain's amygdala when we are confronted with danger or a threatening situation. It is what causes us to either fight or flee. Red is thought to raise metabolism and blood pressure, which are needed to prepare for action during an alarming situation.


Blue Sea and Sky
Scenic View Of Sea Against Clear Blue Sky. Jens Mayer/EyeEm/Getty Images

Associations with the color blue include:

  • Trust
  • Efficiency
  • Coolness
  • Security
  • Sadness

Blue is associated with calmness and tranquility. It is a symbol of logic, communication, and intelligence. It is linked with low stress, low temperature, and low pulse rate. Blue is also associated with a lack of warmth, emotional distance, and indifference. In spite of the negative associations, blue is often chosen as the most popular color in research surveys worldwide.

In research studies, blue light has also been found to reset our circadian rhythms or sleep-wake cycles. It is the blue wavelengths of light from the sun that inhibit the pineal gland from releasing melatonin during the day. Melatonin signals the body that it is time to sleep. Blue light stimulates us to stay awake.


Yellow Rose
Yellow Rose. Topic Images Inc./Topic Images/Getty Images

Yellow is vivid and lively. Associations with yellow include:

  • Energy
  • Hope
  • Honor
  • Fear
  • Frailness

Yellow is a bright color and the most visible color to the eye. It is associated with happiness, friendliness, and signifies competence. Yellow is the color of optimism and creativity. It attracts our attention and signifies caution as yellow is often used along with black on traffic signs, taxis, and school buses. Interestingly, yellow is also associated with fear, cowardice, and sickness.


Green Clovers
Green Clovers. Scacciamosche/E+/Getty Images

Green symbolizes ideas such as:

  • Health
  • Compassion
  • Favor
  • Ambition
  • Passivity

Green is located between yellow and blue on the visible light spectrum and represents balance. It is the color of springtime and is commonly associated with growth, life, fertility, and nature. Green represents safety and is linked to prosperity, wealth, good fortune, and finances. It is considered a relaxing, soothing color that is thought to have a calming effect and to relieve stress. Negative associations with green include greed, jealousy, apathy, and lethargy.


Orange Maple Leaves in Autumn
Orange Maple Leaves in Autumn. Pearls and Prose/Moment/Getty Images

Associations with the color orange include:

  • Wisdom
  • Pleasure
  • Desire
  • Pride
  • Loneliness

Orange is found between red and yellow on the visible light spectrum. It is thought to symbolize qualities that are a combination of the high-energy color red and the emotionally upbeat color yellow. Orange is associated with warmth, enthusiasm, and encouragement.

Orange is thought to affect appetite by increasing hunger. It also is thought to increase mental activity and acumen. In research studies, exposure to orange light has been shown to improve cognition and alertness. Orange is the primary color of fall and is also associated with summer. Light shades of orange are considered welcoming, while dark shades are identified with dishonesty.


King's Crown on Cloth
King's Crown on a Purple Cloth. duckycards/E+/Getty Images

Purple represents ideas and attitudes related to:

  • Wealth
  • Dignity
  • Wisdom
  • Arrogance
  • Impatience

Purple or violet is the shortest wavelength on the visible light spectrum. It is a combination of blue and red and represents nobility, power, and royalty. Purple communicates a sense of worth, quality, and value. It is also associated with spirituality, sacredness, and gracefulness. Light purple colors represent romance and delicateness, while dark purple symbolizes sorrow, fear, and apprehensiveness.


Pink Bubble Gum Bubble
Woman Blowing Large, Pink Bubble Gum Bubble. Colin Anderson/Blend Images/Getty Images

Pink is considered a fun color that also represents:

  • Joyfulness
  • Sweetness
  • Calmness
  • Passiveness
  • Lack of willpower

Pink is the color most associated with femininity. It is tied to ideas of happiness, love, playfulness, and warmth. Pink is also related to harmony and closeness. Light pink signifies sensitivity and kindness, while hot pink represents passion and flirtatiousness. Pink is thought to have a calming effect and many prisons have pink holding cells in an attempt to reduce violent behavior among inmates. Negative associations with the color pink include immaturity, physical weakness, and low self-confidence.


Black Raven
Close up of raven in Yosemite Valley. Dieter Schaefer/Moment/Getty Images

Associations with black include:

  • Aggression
  • Gloom
  • Security
  • Coldness
  • Emptiness

Black absorbs all wavelengths of the visible light spectrum. It does not reflect color and adding black to a color creates different shades of the color. Black is viewed as mysterious, and in many cultures, it is associated with fear, death, the unknown, and evil. It also represents power, authority, and sophistication. Black signifies seriousness, independence, and is commonly associated with sadness and negativity.


Water drop on white feather
Macro of water drop on white feather. SKCPhotography/Moment/Getty Images

White is perceived as delicate and pure. Other associations with white include:

  • Perfection
  • Sterility
  • Cleanliness
  • Goodness
  • Coldness

White is the opposite of black and reflects all wavelengths of the visible light spectrum. When added to black, white lightens its color. In eastern cultures, white is associated with grief and death. In western cultures, it represents purity, innocence, and sterility. White is also associated with safety, spirituality, and faith. Negative associations with white include isolation, emptiness, and a sense of inaccessibility.

How We See Color

Color Vision
Color Vision. Oleksiy Maksymenko/All Canada Photos/Getty Images

We don't actually see colors with our eyes. We see colors with our brains. Our eyes are important for detecting and responding to light, but it is the brain's visual center in the occipital lobes that processes visual information and assigns color. The colors we see are determined by the wavelength of light that is reflected.

Visible color wavelengths range from about 380 nanometers (nm) to about 750 nanometers. Different colors along the visible light spectrum have different wavelengths. For example, red has wavelengths ranging from 620-750 nm, yellow from 570-590 nm, and blue from 450-495 nm. Our eyes are equipped with special photoreceptors called rods and cones. Rods are more sensitive to light than cones and allow us to see in dim light. Rods are not able to detect color. Cones detect a range of color light wavelengths. 

Our eyes have three types of cones: blue, green, and red. The red cones are most sensitive to red wavelengths, blue cones to blue wavelengths, and green cones to green wavelengths. When a color is reflected from an object, the light wavelength hits the eyes and cones send signals to the visual cortex of the brain for processing. Our brain associates the wavelength with a color. Although our eyes have three cone types, the different wavelengths of light detected by the cones overlap. The brain integrates these overlapping wavelength signals sent from cones enabling us to distinguish between millions of different colors.


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Your Citation
Bailey, Regina. "How Colors Affect Human Behavior." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bailey, Regina. (2020, August 27). How Colors Affect Human Behavior. Retrieved from Bailey, Regina. "How Colors Affect Human Behavior." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).