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Colour symbolism and colour psychology

Colour influences us in two ways. The conscious, conditioned and cultural one, on which colour symbolism is based. And the unconscious, universal and instinctive one, which is the base of colour psychology.

Often, the psychological effect of a colour and its symbolism coincide. Because the instinctive reaction ends up becoming cultural conditioning. But sometimes colour psychology is more a product of misinterpretations and prejudices. When this is the case, the instinctive response prevails.

For example, in the West the colour of mourning is black. But in Japan it is white. In this case, the symbolism of the colour is giving us information about the attitude towards death in different cultures. In the West it is felt as a closing, an end. Whereas in Japan it represents a beginning. Depending on whether death is seen as darkness or as light, black or white will be chosen to represent it.

To the cultural symbolism we add the personal one. During our lives we accumulate experiences and memories. Some positive and others less so. If, for whatever reason, we relate an experience with a colour, our relationship with the colour will be affected. Sometimes we forget the experience, especially if it is negative, but our relationship with the colour linked to it stays.

Colour psychology, on the other hand, is universal. We all react the same to the wavelengths, regardless of where we come from and whatever our experiences. Our reaction is subjective, but that doesn’t make it random. There are logical criteria to predict a response.

Colour is a powerful communication tool. It is the first thing we register when we evaluate something. And the instinctive recognition of the language of colour has allowed us to survive as a species, because it helps us recognise poisonous food, dangerous predators and danger signs of all types.

Perhaps nowadays the instinct is more unconscious, but that doesn’t diminish its power. A green landscape reassures us, because we know we won’t starve. We stay away from a yellow and black creature, because we suspect it won’t be friendly. When the world around us turns grey, we tend to draw in and save energy in order to survive winter, literally or metaphorically.

How we see colour and how it affects us

Wavelengths of light consist of photons, or atmospheric particles of energy. They are absorbed or reflected by an object, depending on the pigments that the object contains.

The rays of reflected light reach the eye and concentrate through a lens onto the retina, which is a light sensitive extension of the brain. Human retinas contain rods (active with little light) and cones (active in daylight). There are three types of cones, each with a different pigment, that react to short, medium or long wavelengths. The cones get activated when the pigments absorb light.

The activation of the cones liberates a chemical transmitter that initiates the electric messages that reach the brain, and within the brain, the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland work together to control most of the endocrine system (the production of hormones). Together they control the functions of the body that are influenced by light: body temperature, metabolism, liquid regulation, sexual and reproductive functions, appetite, sleep and patterns of behaviour.

The psychological effect of colour

That colour affects mood and behaviour has been known for a very long time, but little understood. Science recognises four psychological primaries, based on how the eyes and brain process colour. They are red, blue, yellow and green. Red has an effect on the body, blue on the mind and yellow on the emotions. Green balances the other three.

In addition, each colour in the visible spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) affects us in a specific way. These psychological properties of each colour have been accepted and studied for centuries.

And more recently, Angela Wright’s theory and her work with Colour Affects, it has also been proved that the effect that colour has on us is due more to the harmony of the combination of colours than on each colour in isolation.

If you would like to find out more about applied colour psychology, you can go to