Colours have historically been associated with many different meanings. Even in our modern era, you’re still likely to associate purple with royalty and riches, or blue with sadness. White may represent purity, while black reminds us of mystery or death.
Colours also affect us physically and psychologically. Green is known to be a restful colour, and one that’s easy on the eyes – maybe why we feel so much more relaxed while camping in the woods. Likewise, just seeing the colour orange can increase the oxygen supply to the brain, making you more alert and allowing you to think creatively. With all these associations and biological reactions, it’s no wonder colours have such a powerful effect on our behaviours and psychology.
Colours May Create an Added Placebo Effect in Drugs
Ever wonder why prescription drugs and pharmaceuticals are produced in a rainbow of different colours, rather than being sold as uniform, pasty tablets? While it certainly helps to be able to tell your pills apart, there may be a more compelling reason for those bright hues.
A 1996 review looked at the published effects of a number of drugs that targeted the central nervous system. It indicated that the colour of a pill may be able to send us subconscious cues about how the drug is supposed to work, and may even cause it to be more or less effective – largely depending on whether the drug’s appearance lines up with its intended effect.
For example, stimulant drugs tend to be produced in warm, vibrant colours such as red or orange – while drugs with a sedative effect are more likely to be coloured in shades of blue or green. Even stranger, patients who took drugs that were coloured according to their effect seemed to feel the effect of the drugs more. This means that you’ll probably feel a lot drowsier after taking a blue sleeping pill than you would if you took the same medication in an orange or red form.
Blue Light VS. Orange Light
Life in a modern city means that it can be difficult to escape light – from street lamps to billboards to the screens on your phone and laptop, we’re constantly surrounded by light-emitting devices. But did you know that the effect of that light can be altered by changing its colour?
Humans are used to the colour of light changing throughout the day – morning and afternoon sunlight has a bluish tint to it, while the evening sunset and the light emitted by flames and incandescent lightbulbs is markedly orange. Blue light inhibits the production of melatonin – the hormone that regulates sleep – in our bodies. Essentially, we’re programmed to feel awake and alert when bathed in blue light, and likewise, to feel sleepy and start “powering down” when exposed to orange light.
What this means for many people living in large cities with all modern conveniences, is that our natural sleep rhythms are constantly fighting an uphill battle with our phones, computers and televisions. One solution to this problem is to wear glasses with slightly orange-tinted lenses after dark. The orange lenses help filter out the blue light, tricking our brains into producing the melatonin we need when we need it – in turn allowing us to get a good night’s sleep.
But the colour of light doesn’t stop messing with us there. Recent observational studies in Glasgow, Scotland, and in Japan’s Nara prefecture may have uncovered another interesting side effect of blue light. After street lamps in a certain area of Glasgow were replaced with newer blue lights to improve the look of the city, officials noticed a drop in the area crime rate.
Police in Japan noticed a similar drop in the number of suicides committed at train stations where blue lights had been installed. While the officials note that there has been some evidence of blue being a calming colour, its role in reducing crime has yet to be properly determined. It may also be that people are more reluctant to commit such crimes under the brighter, more pervasive blue light.
Light surrounds us even when we’re not thinking about its colour – so what happens when we’re aware of the presence of colour? Well, when colours are used to market products to consumers, for example, things tend to get rather interesting:
Colours Can Affect Our Behaviour as Consumers
We’re exposed to many different colours when we go shopping, whether that’s the packaging colours of the products we’re buying, colours on the price tags, or the colours of the walls in a store. While we might not always be aware of it, these colours can be deliberately chosen by marketers to affect our purchases.
A study published by Virginia Tech University in 2013 found that consumers in a “fixed-price” environment, such as grocery store or a clothing shop, responded to the colour blue by being more willing to make purchases. In general, the color blue increased a customer’s willingness to spend money.
In contrast, the colour red made a consumer more likely to try to save their money – but this doesn’t necessarily mean that consumers who are exposed to the colour red won’t buy anything. The key appears to be what type of selling environment you’re in.
Because the colour red also serves the function of increasing aggression, it can be a more effective tool in competitive negotiations such as auctions. In the same study, auction goers who were surrounded by the colour red were more aggressive and therefore more likely to make bids, though because of the colour’s dual effect of making them less willing to pay, they also bid lower.
Colours are also powerful tools for marketing experts to garner brand recognition. According to this infographic, visual appearance accounts for about 95 percent of a consumer’s reason for buying. Eighty-five percent of what we perceive as “appearance” is colour. Colour also increases brand recognition – brands that use a distinctive, consistent colour scheme are more easily recognized than those with a small picture or text logo.
The effect of colour on consumer behaviour isn’t always so subtle. Because of our long-standing associations with different colours, companies can also use colour as a way to drive home the nature of their products.
In this case, the colour red is more associated with urgency. It’s often used to note sale prices or limited stock. Think about that – how many times have you seen an online price listed in red and felt like you had to make a split-second decision to buy the item?
As previously mentioned, green is the easiest colour for the human eye to process, making it a relaxing hue. Physical shops might paint a wall green to help shoppers feel more relaxed, encouraging them to stay and browse. Green is also associated with wealth, so it’s a good colour for banks to use, both to associate themselves with money and to make customers feel more at ease and less stressed out when dealing with it.
Each colour in the spectrum probably has an ideal use in terms of marketing. Black is sleek and elegant and tends to work well in marketing luxury products. Pink and purple are calm colours that in the 21st century are associated with femininity – you might see a lot of pink or purple in a lingerie shop or on packaging for beauty products.
Striking colours like oranges, reds and sometimes black are best aimed at impulse shoppers because they create more urgency around the purchase. Green and blue are calming colours that are well-used in financial institutions and can attract shoppers who are on a budget. These colour associations mostly pertain to North American shoppers, and each different culture has slightly different colour associations.
The Colour Red Might Play a Role in Human Attraction
Everyone wants to know how to give themselves a leg up when it comes to dating and attraction – so it’s no surprise that scientists are starting to look into how colour affects our most basic instincts.
A 2008 study done at the University of Rochester found that the colour red can be a powerful trigger for sexual attraction. Men who were shown a photo of a woman in a red frame rated the woman as statistically more attractive than the same woman pictured in a neutral frame, or a frame of a different colour that was equal in brightness and saturation.
In another experiment, men were shown two photos of the same woman – one in which the woman wore a red shirt and the other in which she wore a blue shirt. They were then told that they had $100 in their wallet and were asked how much they would be willing to spend while out on a date with the woman. The men who were shown the woman with the red shirt tended to treat her to a more expensive hypothetical outing.
In a later study by the same group of researchers, women were shown to have a similar reaction to the colour, rating a man as statistically more attractive when shown a photo of him against a red background, compared to a photo of him against a neutral background. Interestingly, the colour red also gave the man a higher social status and made him more successful in the eyes of the female study participants. Neither gender felt that the opposite was made more intelligent or friendlier when they were associated with the colour red, thus red remains rooted strictly to sexual and romantic ideals.
It’s possible that these findings are skewed because we have already been socialized to associate red with romance – look at all the red items that you see on store shelves right before Valentine’s Day, for example. However, the researchers also noted that in nature, female baboons and chimpanzees tend to display a reddened skin tone when they are fertile, sending a signal to males that they are ready to mate. The theory here is that our associations with red might be equally tied to our biological background.
The psychology of colour is a growing area of research in the scientific world. We already have compelling evidence that colour can influence our behaviours, moods and choices in bizarre ways – perhaps in the future we’ll be able to harness colour for the powers of good.