Color symbolism and psychology

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For the psychological perception of color, see color and color vision.

In art and anthropology, color symbolism refers to the use of color as a symbol throughout cultures and religions. Color psychology is a field of psychology devoted to analyzing the effect of color on human behavior and feeling, distinct from phototherapy (the use of ultraviolet light to cure infantile jaundice). It is important not to confuse color psychology with color symbolism. For example, symbolically, red may be used to denote danger, largely due to the fact that reds have the illusion of appearing nearer than other colors and, therefore have greater impact. In color psychology, on the other hand the colors of danger are yellow and black. In color symbolism, green denotes envy in many cultures, while in color psychology, it is associated with balance.

Cultural contexts of colors

Listed below are some common cultural (symbolic) connotations attached to colors in Western cultures, particularly in the United States. These are not necessarily consistent with color psychology or chromotherapy:

Color Common connotations
Gray Elegance, humility, respect, reverence, stability, subtlety, wisdom, anachronism, boredom, decay, decrepitude, dullness, dust, pollution, urban sprawl, strong emotions, balance, neutrality, mourning, formality, March.
White Reverence, purity, snow, peace, innocence, cleanliness, simplicity, security, humility, sterility, winter, coldness, clinicism, surrender, cowardice, fearfulness, unimaginative, air, fire, death (Eastern cultures), hope, Aries, Pisces (star signs), January.
Black Modernity, power, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, style, evil, death (Western cultures), fear, anonymity, anger, sadness, remorse, mourning, unhappiness, mysterious, sex, seriousness, conventionality, rebellion, unity, sorrow, January.
Red Passion, strength, energy, fire, love, sex, excitement, speed, heat, arrogance, ambition, leadership, masculinity, power, danger, gaudiness, blood, war, anger, revolution, radicalism, socialism, communism, aggression, summer, autumn, stop, Mars (planet), respect, Aries (star sign), December.
Studies show that red can have a physical effect, increasing the rate of respiration and raising blood pressure; red also is said to make people hungry; the red ruby is the traditional 40th wedding anniversary gift; red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning; red sky at night, shepherd's delight.
Blue Seas, skies, peace, unity, harmony, tranquility, calmness, coolness, confidence, conservatism, water, ice, loyalty, dependability, cleanliness, technology, winter, depression, coldness, idealism, obscenity, tackiness, air, wisdom, royalty, nobility, Earth (planet), Virgo (light blue), Pisces (pale blue) and Aquarius (dark blue) (star sign), strength, steadfastness, light, friendliness, July (sky blue), February (deep blue), peace, mourning (Iran)[citation needed], truthfulness, love.
In many diverse cultures blue is significant in religious beliefs, believed to keep the bad spirits away.
Green Nature, bad spirits, spring, fertility, youth, environment, wealth, money (US), good luck, vigor, generosity, go, grass, aggression, inexperience, envy, misfortune, coldness, jealousy, disgrace (China), illness, greed, corruption (North Africa), life eternal, air, earth (classical element), sincerity, hope, Cancer (bright green, star sign), renewal, natural abundance, growth, health, August, balance, harmony, stability, Islam.
During the Middle Ages, both green and yellow were used to symbolize the devil. Green is believed to be the luckiest of colors in some western countries including, Britain, Ireland (where it is also the national color) and the U.S.
Yellow Sunlight, joy, happiness, earth, optimism, intelligence, idealism, wealth (gold), summer, hope, air, liberalism, cowardice, illness (quarantine), hazards, dishonesty, avarice, weakness, greed, femininity, gladness, sociability, summer, friendship, Gemini, Taurus, Leo (golden yellow, star signs), April, September, deceit, hazard signs, death (Middle Ages), mourning (Egypt), courage (Japan). Yellow ribbons were worn during times of warfare as a sign of hope as women waited from their men to return.
During the Middle Ages, both green and yellow were used to symbolize the devil.
Purple Envy, Sensuality, spirituality, creativity, wealth, royalty, nobility, ceremony, mystery, wisdom, enlightenment, arrogance, flamboyance, gaudiness, mourning, profanity, exaggeration, confusion, homosexuality, pride, Scorpio (violet, star sign), May, November, riches, romanticism (light purple), delicacy (light purple).
Purple is the color of mourning for widows in Thailand, favorite color of Egypt's Cleopatra, and the purple heart - given to soldiers who have been wounded during warfare.
Orange Hinduism, Buddhism, energy, balance, heat, fire, enthusiasm, flamboyance, playfulness, aggression, arrogance, gaudiness, overemotion, warning, danger, enthusiasm, autumn, desire, Sagittarius (star sign), September.
Orange has less intensity or aggression than red and is calmed by the cheerfulness of yellow.
Brown Calm, depth, natural organisms, nature, richness, rusticism, stability, tradition, anachronism, boorishness, dirt, dullness, filth, heaviness, poverty, roughness, earth (classical element), October, Capricorn, Scorpio (reddish brown, star signs), down-to-earth. Brown can stimulate the appetite, wholesomeness, steadfastness, simplicity, friendliness, and dependability.
Pink Spring, gratitude, appreciation, admiration, sympathy, femininity, health, love, June, marriage, homosexuality, bisexuality (both in the form of a pink triangle).

Various cultures see color differently. In India, blue is associated with Krishna (a very positive association), green with Islam, red with fertility (used as a wedding color) and white with mourning. In most Asian cultures, yellow is the imperial color with many of the same cultural associations as purple in the west. In China, red is symbolic of celebration, luck and prosperity; white is symbolic of mourning and death, while "having a green hat" metaphorically means a man’s wife is cheating on him. In Europe colors are more strongly associated with political parties than they are in the U.S. In many countries black is synonymous with conservatism, red with socialism, while brown is still immediately associated with the Nazis. Many believe that blue is universally the best color as it has the most positive and fewest negative cultural associations across various cultures. The symbolism of color can also be seen in localised religious divisions, in the UK for example, cities such as Liverpool (England), Glasgow (Scotland) and Belfast (Northern Ireland) where Catholic and Protestant have a history of conflict, the use green (Catholicism) or Orange (Protestantism) are seen as almost taboo by opposing socioreligious groups.

Colors, especially the natural colors are frequently associated with seasons and geographical cardinal directions, although the specific assignments vary widely among individual cultures.

Studies have shown most colors have more positive than negative associations, and even when a color has negative association, it is normally only when used in a particular context.

People in many cultures have an automatic negative perception of the color black, according to some researchers[1]. Thomas Gilovich and Mark Frank found that sports teams with primarily black uniforms were significantly more likely to receive penalties in historical data. Students were more likely to infer negative traits from a picture of a player wearing a black uniform. They also taped staged football matches, with one team wearing black and another wearing white. Experienced referees were more likely to penalize black-wearing players for nearly identical plays. Finally, groups of students tended to prefer more aggressive sports if wearing black shirts themselves.


Most evidence suggests the lack of a single, universal psychological reaction to a particular color. For example, death is symbolized by black in most Western cultures and by white in many Eastern cultures. Even members of the same culture from different age groups can act differently. Referencing colors with emotions is developed by every individual when they feel an emotion and then see a color repeated during this time. After the connection is ingrained, the referencing can go both ways.

Reasons for color association

Black is often seen as the 'color' of death in Western culture. This is likely because when things die the rotting flesh will turn black, and it is also the color of wood after fire has completely consumed it. Black is also the 'color' of the unknown, since darkness hinders vision. The association of white with death in Eastern cultures could come from the white cloth used to enshroud corpses, for example Egyptian mummys, or the stark whiteness of bones and skeletons. Red is often a color representing violence, war, aggression, or passion; this is probably because red is the color of human blood and fire.


Color psychology is an immature field of study viewed dubiously by mainstream psychologists and therefore qualifies as "alternative medicine". Critics view it as an overstatement of what can be justified by research, and point out that different cultures have completely different interpretations of color.

Practitioners of color psychology, sometimes called color consultants, claim there are a number of reactions to color which seem to be noted in most persons. They also note that common physiological effects often accompany the psychological effects.

Color consultants claim hues in the red area of color are typically viewed as "warm" while those in the blue and green range are typically viewed as "cool". Reds are also viewed as active and exciting, while the blues and greens are viewed as soothing and passive. Physiological tests have revealed similar responses. It's claimed that red hues increase bodily tension and stimulate the autonomic nervous system, while "cool" hues release tension. Black is considered one of a kind, as it can be either evil and malevolent, yet it also stands for elitism and style. White is associated with purity whereas gray is viewed as dull or boring.

Color consultants also point to an increasing number of studies linking colors to specific responses. One study found that weight lifters have more powerful performances in blue rooms, and another study found that babies cry more frequently in yellow rooms. Another (by Dr. Alexander Schauss, Ph.D., of the American Institute for Biosocial Research, cited on Color Matters: pink) used Baker-Miller Pink ("drunk tank pink") or ("Pepto-Bismol pink") to calm prisoners. Color consultants believe that the colors used in the design of environment can have a significant impact on the emotions and performance of people within that environment.

In one system, red is considered to motivate action; orange and purple are related to spirituality; yellow cheers; green creates coziness and warmth; blue relaxes; and white is associated with either purity or death.

Although color psychology is a relatively new area of scientific research, ancient civilizations believed in the influence of color on humans. The ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Indians believed in chromotherapy, or healing with colors.


  1. Frank, M. G. & perception: Black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 74-83.

See also

External links

da:Farvesymbolik sv:Färgsymbolik