research

Feeling purple? – The psychology of colour

When most people are trying to sleep, they keep themselves awake with things like worrying that they forgot to lock the backdoor or fantasising about the latest James Bond actor, not me apparently. This week my mind pondered about colours and their links with mental health and emotions. People may say they are feeling blue or they have been tickled pink, but what is the actual link between colours and emotions?

Apparently there is a thing called ‘colour psychology’, and for this post I thought I would share a bit that I’ve learned about this concept. Colour psychology refers to the psychological effects that certain colours can have on our bodies and minds. It explains how colour may be a powerful force in an individual’s life, with certain colours being able to evoke emotions and feelings. Previous research highlights how some colours have associations because the role it’s played in our evolution. In nature, red or yellow markings on an animal or insect are usually associated with danger, so our ancestors knew to be weary when faced with these. Likewise, our ancestors found colours such as green to be associated with rotting food or faeces which should be avoided, therefore this colour would induce a feeling of disgust. 

This week I also researched all about ‘Chromotherapy’. According to this type of therapy, each human needs a sun’s light to function and live. Further to this, the sun’s light can be split up into a seven-colour spectrum. If an individual has an imbalance of these seven colours it may result in them experiencing negative effects to their physical or mental well being. An example of a type of treatment offered currently is a chromotherapy bath, which is like taking a normal bath but the bath lights up certain colours to address particular health needs. For example red is used to support an individual’s circulatory functions as it is believed to increase the pulse, raise blood pressure and increase the rate of breathing. Whereas yellow is utilised to purify the skin and aid with indigestion. For those of you who would like to know more about chromotherapy in depth, there are some good sources of information here and here .

Having read about chromotherapy I was still a little on the cautious side when considering the power of colour on an individual’s emotional health. I did a little bit more delving and found a number of empirical studies that appear to support the links between colours and emotions. An overview of the links found between colours and emotions is outlined below (Full references can be found at the bottom of this post).

Links between colours and emotions found in previous research

Overall, previous research has produced many mixed results regarding the emotions that colours evoke. This is especially the case for red, where there appears to be a wide range of emotions, both positive and negative, linked to it. There have been a couple of reasons suggested in the past for these variations. Firstly, an individual’s culture or upbringing may play a role. People are more likely to make associations between colours and emotions according to what they were brought up with. For example, in India red is associated with purity, sensuality, and spirituality. On the other hand, some countries in Africa associate red with death, and in Nigeria it represents aggression and vitality. It’s considered a lucky charm in Egypt and symbolises good fortune and courage in Iran. Other researchers have also suggested that the specific shade can make a difference. With regards to red, dark red was found to be associated with anger and rage, whereas lighter shades of red were associated with love (6).

I thought I would do a little research of my own and decided to run a short online survey. In the survey, participants were presented with six colours in turn (red, yellow, blue, orange, purple and green) and for each one they were asked what emotion or mental state the colour made them feel. Forty-seven people kindly took part and a round up of the main results are below in word clouds. For those of you who are not familiar with word clouds, the size and vibrancy of colour is positively correlated with how often it was mentioned. For example, a big vivid word was a more common answer than a small grey one.

Red

The most common emotion that red made people feel was angry (5 people stated this). Feelings of caution were also felt when presented with this colour in particular. The word cloud shows a lot of emotions that appear to be warm in nature associated with this word (e.g. Love, Fierce).

Yellow


Overall, the results of this word cloud present yellow as a colour that draws out positive feelings and emotions. Most people stated that seeing yellow made them feel happy (4 stated this), which I thought could possibly be because it is the same colour as the sun? Others found yellow to be positively energising, making them feel awake and excited.

Blue


A vast majority of participants found blue to make them feel calm (15 people stated this). Blue also made many participants feel happy and relaxed. But in contrast to this, some participants had negative emotions occur when shown this colour, such as feelings of sadness and claustrophobia.

Orange


This colour appeared to be quite a high energy colour, with most participants stating that it made them feel alert (5 said this). It also appeared to provoke high energy emotions that were negative in nature, as some stated that it made them feel annoyed. Others found orange to be a playful colour, which they associated with fun and happiness.

Purple


Purple appeared to make people feel a whole range of emotions, with the most popular being regal and calm (but only 3 people stated these). It also appeared to stimulate people’s curiosity, with some people stating it made them feel inspired and inquisitive.

Green


Green appeared to make most people feel calm (8 people felt this). For many, they associate this colour with neutral, natural and peaceful feelings. A couple of participants found this colour to result in negative emotions such as sickness and nervousness.

So what’s my final opinion on the link between colour and emotions considering all the information presented? I believe something is there but the extent to which certain colours can provoke particular emotions needs more research in my opinion. I’m not sure that there is an instinctive link between colour and mental state (we don’t see red and feel alert by instinct). The link between colour and emotion appears to be something that is developed over an individual’s lifetime, with this link having the possibility of being influenced by an individual’s environment and cultural upbringing. Because of this, the meanings of colours and the effect they have on an individual’s mind feels ambiguous and uncertain at the current time.

I hope you have found this all as interesting as I did putting it together. As a bonus, I can now go back to staying awake worrying that I haven’t locked the backdoor at night.

References

1 –  Wexner, L. B. (1954). The degree to which colors (hues) are associated with mood-tones. J. Appl. Psychol. 38, 432–435. doi: 10.1037/h0062181 
2 – Hanada, M. (2017). Correspondence analysis of color–emotion associations. Color Res. Appl. 43, 224–237. doi: 10.1002/col.22171 
3 – Cimbalo, R. S., Beck, K. L., and Sendziak, D. S. (1978). Emotionally toned pictures and color selection for children and college students. J. Genet. Psychol. 133, 303–304. doi: 10.1080/00221325.1978.10533389 
4 – Kaya, N., and Epps, H. (2004). Relationship between color and emotion: a study of college students. Coll. Stud. J. 38, 396–404.
5 –  Sutton, T. M., and Altarriba, J. (2016). Finding the positive in all of the negative: Facilitation for color-related emotion words in a negative priming paradigm. Acta Psychol. 170, 84–93. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2016.06.012 
6 –  Fugate JMB and Franco CL (2019) What Color Is Your Anger? Assessing Color-Emotion Pairings in English Speakers. Front. Psychol. 10:206. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00206 
7 – Madden, T. J., Hewett, K., and Roth, M. S. (2000). Managing images in different cultures: a cross-national study of color meanings and preferences. J. Int. Market. 8, 90–107. doi: 10.1509/jimk.8.4.90.19795

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