In art and anthropology, color symbolism refers to the use of color as a symbol throughout culture. Color psychology refers to investigating the effect of color on human behavior and feeling, distinct from phototherapy (the use of ultraviolet light to cure infantile jaundice).
Color symbolism and color psychology are culturally constructed linkages that vary with time, place, and culture. In fact one color may perform very different symbolic or psychological functions at the same place. Color symbolism is a contentious area of study dependent upon a large body of anecdotal evidence but not supported by data from well designed scientific studies.
For example, symbolically, red is often used in North America to indicate stop, as with a stop sign, or danger, as with a warning light. At the same time red symbolizes love, as with Valentine's day. A person not familiar with the cultural coding of red in North America could possibly confuse the symbolism of red and mistake a red Valentine's day heart for a warning. Cross-cultural diversity is found in the symbolism of white, which historically has signified purity, virginity, or death (as in Herman Melville's Moby Dick). In North America it is the color worn at weddings. At certain periods in history it was the color worn at funerals in parts of Japan and China.
Many color theorists throughout history have attempted to assign colors to particular human emotions. They believed that seeing particular colors caused particular emotions. Others even created tests they claimed would divulge the personality of the participant.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his Theory of Colours outlined the "Effect of colour with reference to moral associations" believing colors produced not only an effect on the mind, but that they acted specifically to "produce definite, specific states in the living organ." He makes many assumptions, such as in section 776, "A yellow-red cloth disturbs and enrages animals. I have known men of education to whom its effect was intolerable if they chanced to see a person dressed in a scarlet cloak on a grey, cloudy day." He did not understand that animals possess little or limited color vision and he relies upon anecdotal evidence as the basis for general assumptions.
Recognized color theorist Faber Birren in his book Color Psychology and Color Therapy lists what he calls "Modern American Color Associations". For example, he lists the associative attributes of red as follows: General appearance: "Brilliant, intense, opaque, dry"; Mental associations: "Hot, fire, head, blood"; Direct associations: "Danger, Christmas, Fourth of July, St. Valentine's, Mother's Day, flag"; Objective impressions: "Passionate, exciting, fervid, active"; Subjective impressions: "Intensity, rage, rapacity, fierceness". To continue the example, Edwin D. Babbitt wrote that, "Red light, like red drugs is the warming element of sunlight, with an especially rousing effect upon the blood, and to some extent upon the nerves...." J. Dodson Hessey who suggested red was too strong a light for healing, rather "a soft rose is better and beneficial in cases of melancholia and general debility". C.G. Saunder suggested those people with a "dark complexion, eyes, and hair, frequently have poor circulation and need red". He also recommended red light be used for those with goiter, arthritis, dormant kidneys, and that the reddish magenta be prescribed "for masculine impotency and feminine apathy."
Swiss psychologist Max Luscher suggested color preferences could be used to determine individual personality traits. His famous test utilized cards of different colors. Participants were asked to arrange the cards in order of preference and these were then analyzed. Participants who preferred blue were said to be passive and sensitive. Today the Max Luscher is regarded as a historical party game with little reliability. The test is seen as inaccurate because colors are not quantified, accurate, or uniform; participants responded to color names rather than colors alone, and the resulting analysis was prone to interpretation and generally seen to fit a wide range of individuals.
"Effects of Colour Exposure on auditory and somatosensory perception - hints for cross-modal plasticity" by Landgrebe, et al found that colors can relate to the perception of loudness and pain. They found that the color red creates the perception of loudness and decreases the perception of pain with cold stimuli. For green, the perception of loudness decreased while pain detection increased with warm stimuli. The authors go on to conclude that the findings could help in tinnitus or chronic pain treatment (Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2008 Aug 4:29(4)).
As color theorist devised ideas and systems linking colors to emotions, their results began to contradict each other and it became clear that no standard existed. Frequently color theorists contradicted each other. Hard evidence proving that color causes any quantifiable psychological effect upon humans does not exist. It is rumored that red causes people to be hungry, however this observation is subjective and were it to be a universally accepted truth one might expect to see more red restaurants. Other rumors include the idea that red cars get more tickets, that pink rooms calm prisoners down, that yellow prevents depression, and so on. It is notable that no study has proven the truth to any of these anecdotes. It is true that color may affect the psychology of an individual or group formed by shared cultural associations. The fact that libraries often choose green shaded lamps and relaxation rooms connected to theaters are called green rooms does not make green a calming color, just as an SUV painted green doesn't mean that it is particularly eco-friendly. In both instances the color choices play off cultural associations and assumptions.
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:
|Gray||Elegance, humility, respect, reverence, stability, subtlety, wisdom, old age, anachronism, boredom, decay, decrepitude, dullness, dust, entanglement, pollution, urban sprawl, strong emotions, balance, neutrality, mourning, formality, March.|
|White||Light, Reverence, purity, snow, peace, innocence, cleanliness, simplicity, security, humility, sterility, winter, coldness, criticism, surrender, cowardice, fearfulness, unimaginative, air, fire, death (Eastern cultures), hope, Aries, Pisces (star signs), bland, empty and unfriendly(interior), January, celebration.|
|Black||Absence, modernity, power, sophistication, formality, elegance, wealth, mystery, style, evil, death (Western cultures), fear, anonymity, anger, sadness, remorse, mourning, unhappiness, sex, seriousness, conventionality, rebellion, anarchism, unity, sorrow, life, rebirth(ancient Egypt), slimming quality(fashion) 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, the Roman Catholic Church, martyrs, the Holy Spirit, conservatism (U.S. politics), wealth (China).|
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 is also the color of the devil in modern Western culture.
|Blue|| Seas, men, productive (interior) 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), truthfulness, love, sadness, aloofness, the Virgin Mary, liberalism (U.S. politics)|
In many diverse cultures blue is significant in religious beliefs, believed to keep the bad spirits away.
|Green|| Great intelligence, life, 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, calming, creative intelligence, Islam, the ordinary.|
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, 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), God (gold). Yellow ribbons were worn during times of warfare as a sign of hope as women waited for their men to return.|
During the Middle Ages, both green and yellow were used to symbolize the devil.
|Purple|| Envy, Sensuality, bisexuality, spirituality, creativity, wealth, royalty, nobility, ceremony, mystery, wisdom, enlightenment, arrogance, flamboyance, gaudiness, mourning, profanity, exaggeration, confusion, pride, Scorpio (violet, star sign), May, November, riches, romanticism (light purple), delicacy (light purple), penance.|
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, happiness energy, balance, heat, fire, enthusiasm, flamboyance, playfulness, aggression, arrogance, gaudiness, overemotion, warning, danger, autumn, desire, Sagittarius (star sign), September.|
Orange has less intensity or aggression than red and is calmed by the cheerfulness of yellow. Orange is the Royal family of the Netherlands. As such in the Netherlands Orange symbolises royalty and as William of Orange was a Calvinist orange symbolises protestantism particularly in Ireland(Orange Irish).
|Brown||Calm, boldness, depth, natural organisms, nature, richness, rusticism, stability, tradition, anachronism, fascism, 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, sex, June, marriage, joy.|
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 and is generally worn at funerals. 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. The symbolism of color can also be seen in localized 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 of green (Catholicism) or Orange (Protestantism) are seen as almost taboo by opposing socioreligious groups.
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. 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.
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.
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