I’ve always been interested in the psychology of colour and the idea that different colours have the power to effect our mood. You’ve probably already heard things like “blue has a calming and soothing effect”, “yellow makes you joyful” and “red is associated with passion, love, danger” etc.
Popular psychology has really been taken with this idea and often claims that colour can impact you in ways you don’t always notice. So being a curious psychology student, I decided to dig a little deeper into the claims. To find out what scientific research has actually found out about psychology and colour. I’ll be focusing on the three colours red, yellow and blue over three different posts. I’ll be starting with red.
Red is a colour that does naturally draw attention, this could have something to do with the fact that red is the colour of blood. Obviously, we don’t get the same rush of adrenaline every time we see red compared to blood, but perhaps that is why we associate it with danger. This strong association has been found to have significant effects on our behaviour.
Exposure to red has been found to actually enhance our physical reactions, causing increased bursts of strength (Elliot et. al. 2011). Red has also been found to improve performance on cognitive tasks. People working on a proofreading task in a red painted office were found to make fewer errors compared to those working a white painted office (Kwallek & Lewis, 1990). Red seems to be both a very psychologically and physically stimulating colour.
However, red has not always been found to have this stimulating effect. One study found that exposure to red before an exam showed lower than usual performance, as red appears to be subconsciously associated with the danger of failing. Exposure also increases the motivation to avoid tasks (Elliot et.al, 2007).
Which seems strange as how can a colour have such opposite effects? How can it decrease motivation and impair performance but then improve performance on other tasks?
Well, I think it could all depend on the context. In situations where red may be interpreted as a warning (in this example before an exam), is has the ability to decrease motivation. It induces this sense of failure and therefore has the ability to impair performance and motivation. However, in contexts where there isn’t this increased fear of failure, a stimulating effect occurs.
How is Red Best Utilised?
Brands such as Coco-Cola seem to have used red’s stimulating effect to very successfully market their product. Red’s naturally eye catching property means we can hardly imagine not noticing a can of coke on a shelf while looking for a drink. The stimulating effects of the highly sugary drink match perfectly with the stimulating properties of the colour red. This is no accident, brands often cleverly use the psychology behind colours to successfully market their products.
In art, we can see that red is often used to evoke powerful reactions. Or to draw attention to certain aspects of a drawing or painting. We often describe paintings that have a lot of red as bold or powerful; rather than calm or serene. It is often used to set a powerful tone and leave a lasting impact on the observer. One of my favourite Vincent Van Gough paintings has this exact effect. My eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the beautiful contrast between branches and the sky. Which is why I bought the print of it when I visited the Van Gough Museum a few years back.
In interior design red is often suggested for the dining room to stimulate a lively atmosphere for meals. However, based on the idea that red increases our physical reactions and strength red would actually be perfect for a gym or exercise space. Bursts of red around the home can be used to draw attention to certain features, as red is so naturally eye catching.
I have definitely noticed in the past how colour has impacted my mood and it’s interesting to find and share more about the science behind colour interpretation.
I’d be interested to know if you have ever noticed colour affecting your mood or behaviour?
Here are the links to the other colours I covered in this blog series:
Images for collage: Unsplash
Photo Editing: Canva