How Colors Affect You: What Science Reveals.

Diana Cepsyte
15 min readNov 14, 2018

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Let me tell you a story.

Some years ago Heinz ketchup company released a green-colored ketchup. Green. Colored. Ketchup. Yup. The result? It was wildly successful. People loved it and the company made huge revenue in just a few months. The conclusion Heinz drew from this: people love colors. Colors are fun. Let’s make other colored ketchup. So, they went ahead and released pink ketchup, and purple, and orange, etc. Based on their previous success, the company believed that they will be as successful as before. Were they? No. This time it was a colossal failure. No one wanted THAT colored ketchup. The company lost millions of dollars. Then they decided to discontinue other-colored ketchup (besides red) altogether.

So what is the lesson in all of this? What really happened here? It’s possible Heinz never learned the reasons behind this success and failure. William Lidwell, guy theorizing about this stuff, explained it this way:

The reason that green ketchup WAS successful is because we have green tomatoes out there. Ketchup is made from tomatoes. In most cases tomatoes are red. But they are also green. Have you ever seen an orange or a purple tomato? They might be out there, but I haven’t seen them. I actually told this story to a few of my friends, and their reaction to it was disgust. They actually made that face of ‘ew’ even thinking of purple ketchup. They said ‘I remember when that came out. I was disgusted to even look at it.’ The idea of a purple ketchup was incongruent — it did not fit in the natural world, the world of food. Also, the green ketchup was released at the same time that Shrek the movie was released. Shrek is this big green guy that eats green disgusting things. Kids loved the green ketchup because Shrek made green, disgusting food fun.

Here’s what psychology reveals about how people look at things in relation to food and color: we first taste with our eyes.

Another example in a form of an experiment:

A group of researchers took several bowls and filled them with tasteless jello. It had no taste. They colored the first bowl of jello with red, second with yellow, and third with blue dye. Then they had people taste each one. Remember, the jellos were tasteless. What did the experiment reveal? When people tasted the red jello, they said that it tasted sweet, like strawberries. When they tasted the yellow one, they said it tasted sour, like lemons. And what about blue? This one was the hardest to identify. However, most people said that it had a kind of a disgusting taste, like rotten food. Color blue is the hardest to find in foods in nature. Usually when we see something that is blue or black on a fruit or a vegetable, it’s dead or rotting.

What happened when people were blind-folded and couldn’t see the jello? They reported no taste difference.

However, when the experimenters told the participants that there was no difference in each of the colored jellos, they did not believe it. They thought they were lied to. Such an interesting find of how we perceive and engage with colors.

To repeat what I said above: We, first, taste with our eyes. Absorb that. Take it in. Do you believe it? Can you think of how colors affect you? What is your favorite color? Why? How does it make you feel?

Color has to be CONGRUENT (go in line with, match) the idea of the product/food/item that we are trying to associate it with.

I mean, image a funeral home that was pink in color. How popular would it be? Or imagine a children’s clothing website that was all in dark, black colors. How many parents would want to shop there? Or a hospital that had green or red walls? Colors make us feel things.

One more example. If you’ve ever taken pills, have you ever considered why they are a certain color? Why is it white, or blue, or red? Is it simply because they come in that color, the chemicals made them look that color, or maybe (and more plausibly) research-based decisions were made to create those drugs in those colors? Apparently that’s what science reveals. Colored blue (placebo) pills, consistently put people to sleep, and colored red placebo pills wake people up. There is no chemical to create that effect in people, but for some reason our psychology, by seeing that color, creates that physiological effect in us. Yellow pills are best at treating depression. Green pills are best at reducing anxiety. Incredible.

“Colors mean different things to different parts of the brain,” Lidwell.

Anyways, I learned about the meaning of colors, psychology behind them, and our perception of colors in this lecture series by William Lidwell. He discussed white & black, red, yellow, green, and blue in subsequent order.

One fascinating fact from the Blue Lecture, as the professor said, ‘a few thousand years ago we, humans, could not see color blue. It’s a pretty recent development, which might also explain why majority of us choose blue as our favorite color.’ Super interesting stuff. Like really.

BLACK & WHITE.

In 1988, in Armenia, a devastating earthquake killed more than 50,000 people, and over 75,000 were injured in just a matter of hours. 30,000 children had to be evacuated to various parts of the then Soviet Union, because their parents were either dead of missing.

Most of these children suffered post-traumatic stress disorder because of the psychological scars. Two Russian psychologists founded a therapeutic center to help treat these children. They named this center Aralez, after an Armenian god in a form of a dog, who heals the fallen by licking their wounds.

One of the treatments at Aralez was art therapy. Children were given paper and colored pencils to draw and paint. Often times it is easier for children to communicate through the art of drawing and painting due to their limited language ability.

Previous to the traumatic earthquake event, these children would communicate themselves (in form of art) through coloring in vivid colors, expressing their understanding of the world. However, after the earthquake these children stopped using colors. Everything they drew was in black and grey. The sun was black, the grass was black, as was the sky and everything else they portrayed.

At one point the therapists decided to remove black pencils and paints. They wanted to see what would happen. The children stopped creating pictures altogether.

However, over the next few years, as the children began to heal, the color slowly returned to their paintings.

This story is a reminder that the link between colors and our emotions is inextricable.

Something else that this lecture discussed were how, according to research, again and again, we identify black with immorality and dirtiness, and white, to us, signals morality and cleanliness. In a competitive context black = aggression, and white = submission; in moral context black = evil, white = goodness. Food served on white plates is perceived to taste better and to be of higher quality. Have you ever seen food served on a black pate in some advertisement? Black has strong associations with rotten, spoiled food. Black and white together signal status and quality in real estate context. The way that color is perceived is also very strongly associated with context. If you’re going on a date and wear red, that’s associated with love and passion; but red is not good in calming contexts, such as a hospital or a therapeutic environment.

“Colorful products are perceived to be worth less than black and white products,” Lidwell.

Animal shelters dread what is called ‘black dog syndrome,’ referring to the difficulty with which they get black dogs adopted, in comparison to how easy it is to adopt lighter-colored dogs. People perceive black dogs to be more aggressive. But they’re not. It is we who make them so.

RED.

“Red, it turns out, is special. It holds a unique place in the pantheon of colors. It, more than any other, carries primal significance — fear, strength, beauty, status, passion. In terms of richness of meaning, red is without equal among colors,” Lidwell.

There was an experiment done with color red clothing in the 2004 Olympics’ 4 combat sports: boxing, taekwondo, Greco Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling. In all four of these sports, the sportsmen were randomly assigned either red or blue uniforms. The hypothesis of this study was that the participants wearing red uniforms would appear more threatening to their opponents, giving them a psychological edge in the contests. If color had no effect, we would expect the outcome to be statistically insignificant: 50/50.

What did they find out? “In all four sports, the majority of the winners wore red with an overall average advantage of 55% to 45%, a statistically significant margin.”

There were many other experiments done on people wearing red in competitive sports, and what was found was that teams wearing red usually won over and over against other colored clothing teams. Very interesting indeed.

Lidwell also says that seeing color red might actually make you stronger, if for a short time.

In competitive contexts red signals aggression and dominance.

However, in mating contexts, red signals status in males and fertility in females. That is if a woman wears a red dress or even a shirt, she is perceived as much more attractive than any other color clothing. Color red is associated with fertility (red lips, etc.). And the more fertile a woman appears, the more attractive she is to men.

For men to be attractive to women, by contrast, has to do with signaling fitness and status. “Generally speaking, the more powerful the man looks, the more attractive he becomes to women.” Ha, curious, and funny. The way that men could symbolize status through red is by accentuating themselves with the color, such as a red tie, a red car, etc.

However, in general contexts, red usually signals danger and avoidance.

There was an experiment done with groups of students. One group was given a white binder from which to take a test. Another group a green binder. And a third group was given a red binder. The white and green groups scored at about 65%. The red binder group scored at 50%. That is HUGE. Really big.

Red seems to give us a boost of physical performance tasks. However, whatever is providing that physical boost seems to interfere with higher-order thinking.

Also, according to research and studies stated by Lidwell, when it comes to auction websites, using color red really increases people’s bidding. “Specific context meanings trump general context meanings.” What was done in this bidding experiment was that one object was placed on a red background, and then the same object (at a different time) was placed on a blue background. Because an auction website has a large competition component, the color red actually created a mental stimulus. The bids for the red-background object were double to that of the blue -background object.

In competitive contexts red creates aggression, and ‘gets everyone’s juices flowing.’ A bidding-war instills aggression and competition.

If you’re selling something (not in an auction), you should avoid red on signs and advertisements. Red color will create buyers more aggressive negotiators. So interesting!

YELLOW.

One thing that I remember from the yellow lecture, was this really, really, really interesting story about how we remember and learn, and how effective color yellow is in that spectrum.

So here’s what happened.

There was this professor who would always distribute his tests on different colored paper. Each different color had a different version of the test. So, for example, blue had one type of test, red another, and yellow still other. The students knew this. He did this to eliminate cheating. Students knew that it was pointless to cheat off from a green test if their test was blue, since they were different.

However, at one time the professor had no time to create different tests. So, what he did is he printed out the same test on different colors of paper. The students did not know that the test was the same even if they got different colored papers. They still assumed that tests were different because the colors of paper were different. When the professor graded the papers, he placed them together in one stack — he was in a habit of putting the best exams at the top of the stack. However, what he realized after he graded all the papers was that the top 10% of the stack were all yellow colored. He was amazed by this fact. The students had no idea that it was the same test, but those who had yellow paper test did the best out of all the students! Incredible!

This accidental experiment led to more experiments than involved over 4,000 students being studied about test performance and colors. What they found was that over and over again students who had yellow test paper did better than all over colored paper tests. An amazing find. Why is that? What feelings does yellow evoke in us? What feelings does red and other colors evoke? As mentioned before, color red in intellectual contexts actually decreases our ability to perform because feelings of aggression and the like are evoked. Color yellow, then, tends to evoke feelings of happiness and calmness. I mean think about notepads. Most if not all of them are in color yellow. Now, imagine if your notebook was colored red. How would that make you feel? And why, do you think, are most stop signs in color red? Because it evokes danger, stay away, that kinda stuff. I think that I would be repulsed by a notebook that had red pages, honestly.

However, even though yellow mostly seems to evoke happy associations and thoughts, such as sunshine and nature, we can also link it with sickliness or even death. If you think about it, when you look at a person, if someone’s skin or eyes look yellow, we think that they must be sick or in some way unhealthy. Yellow teeth are associated with smoking, and I think there is something called (or has been called) ‘a yellow fever’ where many people have died years ago. Their skin turned yellow and then it led to death.

Lidwell shared an anecdote about Steve Jobs (really funny, and interesting). Basically what happened was that one day, a Sunday morning of 2008, the man behind Google+, Vic Gundotra, received a phone called which said that Steve Jobs had to talk to him and that it was urgent. “So, what was the problem? A shade of yellow. Jobs told Gundotra that he had been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and didn’t like the way it looked. He said, “The second O in Google doesn’t have the right yellow gradient. It’s just wrong.

One of the takeaways from this story is the message that your company is trying to communicate to the world. By simply choosing a wrong shade of yellow, Google (for a time) was conveying a sickness feel and impression. How someone feels when looking at that particular yellow creates a lasting effect on how they perceive the company, even if it was an indirectly (or unintentionally) conveyed message.

An excerpt from the “Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

“It’s the strangest yellow, that wallpaper. It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw, not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old, foul, bad, yellow things. But there’s something else about that paper, the smell. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper, a yellow smell.”

Lidwell follows this quote up by stating that what art therapists have observed is that suicidal patients tend to use yellow pigments more generously in their paintings, as indeed did van Gogh. His last painting before committing suicide was the very yellow, and very disturbing, “Wheatfield with Crows.” Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that across all cultures yellow is the least preferred of all colors. Wow. This is so amazingly interesting. Ha!

Yellow and gold are consistently the least popular car colors world-wide.

Quite an interesting lecture. Many stories to help illustrate the meaning and the message behind color yellow.

GREEN.

What does color green represent? After blue, green is the color we see most in nature. Human eye can discriminate between shades of green more than any other.

Historically speaking, green has been used to symbolize fertility, life, and renewal. The etymological root of the word green is the Germanic word for grow.

Two context of green: problem-solving (where green fosters creativity) and environmental (where green seems to reduce anxiety and mental fatigue).

There was an experiment done on color green in nature and our ability to remember. A bunch of students were given a task: to remember a sequence of numbers in a backwards order. One group of these students were then told to take a walk through either a busy city block or through a nature walk in the park. What they found was that students who took the nature walk could significantly better remember the backwards sequence of numbers.

The experiment was repeated, but this time only images of either nature or city were shown to different groups. Again, those who saw images of nature could remember the sequence of numbers much better than the group that didn’t see those images.

In the second experiment there were no nature sounds or smells to influence the memory. There was only one common feature between the nature walk and the nature images: the presence of the color green.

As Lidwell says, if you want to reduce your stress and anxiety levels, you want a big doze of green, you want to see it, be exposed to it. Even having a green plant around you could reduce your anxiety levels.

Red = danger

Green = safe

The right shade of green can be very inviting and welcoming, and actually make people choose your product, or pick up your book off a shelf.

BLUE.

Lidwell begins this lecture by talking about Homer and his books, the Odyssey and the others. He talks about a man who was a Homer scholar, who wrote a 2,000 page book studying Homer and Homer’s time. This Homeric scholar was William Gladstone. After an intense study of Homer’s works, looking at the lack of colors used by Homer in his writings, Gladstone made a conclusion that ancient humans did not experience color as vividly as we do today. He actually created a diagram charting how many numbers each color was mentioned in Homer’s work. Black was mentioned 170 times, white 100, red 13 times, and all other colors appeared less than 10 times. However, color blue was mentioned zero times.

Gladstone writes, “Homer had before him the most perfect example of blue, yet he never once so describes the sky. His sky is starry or broad or great or iron or copper, but it’s never blue.”

The idea that our ancient humans were color-blind in their time was laughed at when it first came out. However, a philologist by the name of Lazarus Geiger did a study on other ancient language texts, some time after Gladstone’s theory of ancient’s color-blindness: Icelandic, Hindu, Chinese, Arabic and Hebrew. Not in any of these texts was color blue mentioned once.

Additionally, in 2006 a psychologist by the name of Jules Davidoff conducted a study on a Himba tribe from Namibia. In their language there is no word for color blue. They showed these tribe members 12 squares: 11 green and 1 blue. The tribe members struggled to tell Davidoff which square was different from the others.

It is easy for us, the westerners, to see which square is the different one. We are probably saying to ourselves right now ‘it’s that one, right there in the corner. That’s the blue one.’ However, these tribe members couldn’t identify the different square as easily or as quickly.

In general context blue fosters openness and creativity. In social contexts blue creates friendliness and peacefulness. And in therapeutic contexts blue promotes alertness and well-being during the day, but can have negative health effects at night.

There was this study done where people were given food off of blue, white, and red colored plates. According to what some people believe, and some advertisement agencies instigate, people should have eaten more food from the red plates. However, what actually happened was that more food was eaten from blue and white plates. Perhaps this relates back to the whole idea of red=danger and white and blue = peace and calmness. Red = stay away. White and blue = friendliness and openness.

Another study was done on color blue and our anxiety and relaxation, concentration, performance, mood, and fatigue levels. In two different office rooms two different lights were installed: in one the lights were white; in the other the lights were a figment of blue. Over a course of 2 months people using these office rooms were studied and questioned about their alertness and fatigue levels. What they found was that people using the blue lighted room were much more alert, relaxed, performed better, their mood was increased, and they had less anxiety than those in the white lighted room.

Colors not only influence the way we think, feel, and act, but they can also influence our understanding of the world we see around us, our environments, work, and day to day.

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