Please take a few moments to look at each color below, pausing for a few seconds on each of them individually, and think about how each one makes you feel. Concentrate on the color alone, ignoring context, shape, or relationships to the other colors on the screen.
Now tell me, did the blue make you feel calm or productive? Did the red make you feel powerful or maybe just hungry? Was the gray unsettling or did it make you feel wise?
Today I am going to share my thoughts on color psychology, “the study of color as a determinant of human behavior.” Essentially, the belief behind color psychology is that certain colors can make you react certain ways. Opinions about the true impact of this effect vary widely. I believe it is obvious that color choice is a fundamental aspect of art and design, but so many of the ideas behind color psychology reek of self-important pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that I get turned off of the whole thing. I’m sure that the results of the little experiment we tried above are quite varied, but color psychology disregards all of our personal experiences, cultures, and preferences and blends them all together to make sweeping generalizations. I disagree with any non-contextual classification, and I roll my eyes at a guide that says a certain yellow means “joy” but also “cowardice” or that a particular red means “passionate” but can also mean “violent”.
According to some color psychology charts, by using color you can control your metabolism or make yourself hungry or become more productive. Simply by using the right colors on the psychology chart, you can pick which color to paint your room or find the colors you need to persuade your boss with a presentation for work. You can even learn the meaning behind the colors of your chakras (click on the link and scroll down to the bottom of this chart for a good laugh). It all reminds me a bit of feng shui, where they blend interior design with ancient magical nonsense.
If you paint your office blue because, according to these guides, it would make your workers more productive, but you don’t take into account the lighting, carpet color, and office furniture color you might end up creating a more depressing or sedating effect. Beige might have worked better, or any one of hundreds of other colors. It all depends on the type of environment you’re working with or trying to create. One of our girls’ bedrooms is painted hot pink and bright orange with black accents. I’m sure lots of people would cringe at their room being that color, but it’s right for my girls. I don’t need a color chart to tell me how it’s supposed to make me feel: it’s bold, hip, and energetic, and makes me happy.
A few cities have gone so far as to install blue lighting in their street lights under the assumption that it would reduce crime; this was based on some information that when blue lights were installed in Scotland crime went down and when blue lights were installed in Japanese subways that suicides went down. Thus the reduction in crime and suicides was caused by the blue lights. Correlation equals causation, right? Obviously, such anecdotal data cannot be taken as proof of the merits of color psychology. There must be rigorous scientific studies done before such assumptions are made. What were the controls on this experiment? I personally hate the bright blue headlights that some people have on their cars. Calming? No. They are so bright and unusual, it makes me extremely aware of the car coming towards me because I’m annoyed. Maybe the reduction of crime in these areas wasn’t because of the “calming” effect blue, but because it creates an agitating, alien environment. Maybe it makes them feel paranoid, like they’re being watched. I am curious what happens once the people become accustomed to the lights, but I couldn’t find any long-term studies.
After listening to the commentary on certain movies, it has made me appreciate the art of cinematography and how the use of colors can affect a viewer’s experience. “The Wizard of Oz” is a wonderful example. Who can forget Dorothy in the desolate, sepia-colored dust bowl that was Kansas, only to enter the wonderful world that was Technicolor Oz? Even “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” won me over mostly because of its use of a variety of hues and filters.
Nature has an assortment of color palates that are common in environments all around the world, which I am sure plays into the generalizations that color psychology makes. When a person is in a cold place, it can have certain affects on their mood, so photographers and filmmakers change the mood of a scene by invoking an environmental experience. As a photographer I may use color to convey a certain feeling, but it’s always based on the context.
For this week’s project, I took one photo and used different filters on it to see how it changes the feel of the picture. Certainly, the photos change from an artistic perspective, but in order to “classify” the colors being used, you must first have context; that is where color psychology fails in my opinion.
Here is the original photo I took for this post. It was a pleasant spring day, 80 degrees Fahrenheit, mostly cloudy.
When I added a warm filter (more yellow) to the photo, it toasted the picture up a bit. Of course, the bare trees can also imply fall, so you still might interpret an autumn day despite it being spring.
With a cooler filter (more blue), I feel it brings the temperature interpretation down to about 50-60 degrees, if not colder. This looks like a wintery picture.
Of course, as I’ve said before, the lack of color is a color choice as well. I took this same photo and changed it to black and white.
I believe removing the color does give the photo a bit of a desolated look, or perhaps more classic or timeless.
What if I added some color back in? Let’s try three different versions with three different colors: pink, blue, and yellow. Looking at the photos, do any of the colors make you feel differently about a particular one? Maybe you like (or dislike) the splash of color, but your personal preference most likely decides which one you would choose. Seriously, does the pink make the photo more “sentimental” or does the blue make it more “peaceful” or does the yellow make the photo “happier”? I honestly don’t think one of these colors adds more to the photo than the others, at least not on an emotional level.
I suggest taking color psychology with a grain of salt. There are so many contradictions amongst the color psychology charts; while one chart claims light yellow means “babies” and “pleasing” another chart claims in its Venn diagram that yellow “makes babies cry” and “Don’t paint a babies room yellow because they are more prone to crying“.
Oh, all the countless times I made my babies wear yellow, little did I know it made them cry. If only I had known about color psychology!