Don’t Believe Your Eyes: the Psychology of Color

Much like characters in science fiction, we are constantly being subliminally manipulated by the shapes, images, and even colors our eyes are exposed to in advertising and art. Before we begin to analyze famous icons for psychological undertones, we must begin to understand the science behind colors. First, some color vocabulary: hue is a pure color which includes the primary colors (red, yellow, blue) that our eyes can perceive (for more information on the relationship between the eye and color check out a previous blog entry), secondary colors (which are made by the mixing of primary colors, such as: orange, purple, and green), and tertiary colors (yellow-orange, blue-green, red-orange, etc.). Tint is any hue that has white added to it, for example, pink is a tint of red. Tone is any hue that has grey mixed into it. Shade is a hue that has black added. Get the pattern?color-wheel-labeled

Now, let’s discuss the physical properties of these colors:

Red: Red is the color with the longest wavelength, which allows it to appear nearer to the watcher and tends to grab our attention first. Of the 6 to 7 million cones most humans have in their eyes, 64% of them are red cones, which makes red the easiest color for humans to see. The color red has a physical effect on the human body: it raises the pulse rate and cortisol levels which stimulates the fight or flight response. With this chemical reaction, it makes sense that red is usually associated with passion and aggression. This association between stress chemicals and the color red is most likely due to a long evolutionary history between red and danger in nature. The most obvious example is blood which is red in hue and is often associated with injury which is something most organisms want to avoid.


Yellow: In cultures all around the world yellow is regarded as the color of happiness, harmony, and optimism. This is most likely due to it’s vibrancy. This over stimulation that occurs when most look at the color yellow is most likely because yellow light stimulates both the L and M (long and medium wavelength) cone cells of the retina. Yellow also has a long history of an association with food (bananas, egg yolks, etc.), nature (the sun, flowers, leaves), and warmth (spring and sunlight). In fact, yellow is the most common color of flowers as yellow is the most visible color to essential insect pollinators.


Blue: Blue has been revealed as the world’s most popular favorite color time and time again, This is most likely due to the calming effect most shades, tints, and tones of the hue blue have on the human body. In many ways, blue is the opposite of red physiologically as it often lowers the pulse and temperature. Blue is often the color of food that is rotten or poison and thus often lowers appetite in individuals as well. Animals and insects are less likely to see, or be attracted, to the color blue. In fact, owls are the only birds that can even see the color. This is why so many animals that are likely to be prey evolve this blue color in order to live peacefully from predators. Water and sky are both blue which are often associated with calmness (the movement of the clouds, the constant crashing of the waves). Blue cones only make up 2% of the cones in the retina, which makes it the color our eyes are most sensitive to, and also explains why it is often less abrasive than yellow and red.


Now… How do artists, advertisements and directors utilize these physiological traits and the evolutionary history associated with these different hues? Well, they’ve narrowed it down to a science, in fact ‘colorists’ (individuals responsible for choosing colors) refer to a ‘color wheel of emotions’ created by psychologist Robert Plutchik (see below).


In the past, film makers had to commit to one type of color filter for their movies, which can aid one in fully understanding the directors intentions and how one is being manipulated. However, technological advances have allowed the director’s to change the color of each scene, sometimes extremely subtly, in order to accentuate certain emotions of their audiences. There are some individuals that claim that color can often be directly associated with the genre of movie. Red=romance, blue=horror, yellow/green=science fiction, orange=western, etc.

For example, in Her (a romance movie) you can see that soft pinks, oranges, and reds are used in the scene, and to tint the light to induce feelings of passion and anticipation.


In the horror film It Follows you see a lot of blues and greens being forced into the shots. This is most likely to create a false sense of calm in order to amplify the fear and suspense.

it follows

Trainwreck is a comedy that uses a lot of yellow tones in order to induce joy and laughter in the audience.


Whoa. That’s a lot of subtle manipulation. Don Draper would be proud.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s