How It Works

What exactly is colour psychology?

It is the effects of the electro-magnetic radiation of light on human mood and behaviour - a universal, psychophysical reaction, which is not as heavily influenced by culture, age and gender as is generally thought.

It is important to understand that there is a great difference between colour psychology and colour symbolism. Historically, what is often described as colour psychology is actually colour symbolism - the conscious associations that we are conditioned to make. Cultural responses to colour derive from a variety of causes: for example, green is the sacred colour throughout Islam, being the colour of the Prophet's robe; in Ireland it is considered lucky, perhaps because when the world around us contains plenty of green this indicates the presence of water and therefore little danger of famine; in England it is considered unlucky, possibly because of its association with decay and disease.

There are many examples of colour symbolism: purple is associated with royalty for the simple reason that, until relatively recently in our history, it was an extremely expensive dye and only royalty could afford it; red is the colour of blood and has associations with war.

These associations often coincide with colour psychology (red actually can trigger aggression) but they are by no means the same thing. More about the psychological properties of the main colours.

How does colour psychology work?

Colour is light, which travels to us in waves from the sun, on the same electro-magnetic spectrum as radio and television waves, microwaves, x-rays etc. Light is the only part of the spectrum that we can see, which perhaps explains why we take it less seriously than the invisible power of the other rays. Sir Isaac Newton demonstrated that light travels in waves, when he shone white light through a triangular prism and, when the different wavelengths of light refracted at different angles, he was able to demonstrate that the colours of the rainbow (the spectrum) are the component parts of light.

When light strikes any coloured object, the object will absorb only the wavelengths that exactly match its own atomic structure and reflect the rest - which is what we see. Turn this around and it is easy to understand how the colour of anything is a clear indication of its atomic structure or, in simple terms, what it is made of. When light strikes the human eye, the wavelengths do so in different ways, influencing our perceptions. In the retina, they are converted into electrical impulses that pass to the hypothalamus, the part of the brain governing our hormones and our endocrine system.

The hypothalamus (with the pituitary) governs:

  • Water regulation
  • Sleeping and behavioural patterns
  • The balance of the autonomic nervous system
  • Sexual and reproductive functions
  • Metabolism
  • Appetite 
  • Body temperature

The hypothalamus houses the body's biological clock

Colour is energy and the fact that it has a physical effect on us has been proved time and again in experiments - most notably when blind people were asked to identify colours with their fingertips and were all able to do so easily. The shorter the wavelength, the stronger the underlying physical effect

Colour is Nature's own powerful signalling system - the universal, non-verbal language. Scientifically, it is the first thing we register when we are assessing anything: a very simple and obvious example of that is our reaction to a fly in our home: if it is black or navy blue, we will probably find it a minor irritation, but if it has yellow stripes our reaction will be different - most of us will recoil. The same instinct tells us when food is unsafe to eat and throughout the animal kingdom colour is widely used to signal sexual availability.

On a wider level, the colours of our environment affect our behaviour and mood. When yellow daffodils, bluebells and colourful crocuses appear, we immediately begin to feel livelier; when grey skies and rain or snow surround us we instinctively draw in and tend to hibernate.

In today's sophisticated world it is easy to underestimate the power of primitive instincts, as they are largely unconscious. Today we might be contemplating a packet of corn flakes or a new cold cure, rather than a primitive meal or a curative herb, but exactly the same instincts come powerfully into play. The colours of the interior environment wherein we live or work affect us in just the same way as those in the natural world always did. The colours that people wear still send out clear signals that we can all read accurately.

Everyone thinks that response to colour, being subjective, must therefore be unpredictable.

Not so.

Response is subjective but, when the study of colour harmony is combined with the science of psychology, reactions can be predicted with startling accuracy. There is no such thing as a universally attractive colour. Red, for example, might be your favourite colour but another person might hate it. You see it as exciting, friendly and stimulating, he sees it as aggressive and demanding. Blue might be perceived as calm and soothing - or as cold and unfriendly.

The key factor that Angela Wright recognised in studying colour psychology was that, equally, there are no wrong colours; It is the combination of colours that triggers the response; you could have a grey sky on a summer day, but our reaction to that grey with the beautiful colours of the summer landscape would be different from the combination of a grey sky with a predominantly snow white scene. We do not respond to just one colour, but to colours in combination. Even the winter landscape contains many colours.

In many ways, colour and music work the same way (and both are underpinned by mathematics). As jazz pianist Thelonius Monk observed: "There are no wrong notes".

In practice, colour psychology works on two levels: the first level is the fundamental psychological properties of the eleven basic colours, which are universal, regardless of which particular shade, tone or tint of it you are using. Each of them has potentially positive or negative psychological effects and which of these effects is created depends on personality types and - crucially - the relationships within colour combinations, the second level of colour psychology. For further clarification of this important point, read about the Colour Affects System.