Color: Does It Affect Behavior?


Niki Jankowiak


St. Bonaventure University


As sun began to peer over the horizon, the sky revealed hues of reds, oranges and yellows, which signified the arrival of a new day.  As the daylight faded and was replaced by a hovering blanket of darkness, daily activities were replaced by hours filled with sleep. The earliest humans were able to recognize that sunlight was essential to life. “Color, being a manifestation of light, held divine meaning. Historical records of color show little interest in the physical nature of color, nor yet in its abstract beauty, but in a symbolism that attempted to resolve the strange workings of creation and give it personal and human meaning” (Birren 1961). 

The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks gave color a significant role in healing techniques which they attributed to the god Thoth or Hermes Trismegistus, which would later be called the Hermetic tradition.  The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks along with the Chinese and Indians used colored minerals, stones, crystals, salves, and dyes as remedies, and painted treatment sanctuaries in various shades of color” (Graham 1998).  Based on Aristotle’s four elements: air, fire, water, and earth, the Greeks believed that the body was made up of four humors, each of which was associated with a color: choler (yellow bile), blood (red), phlegm (white), and melancholy (black bile).  Choler or yellow bile meant one was inclined to anger.  Blood was the humor associated with optimism, confidence, and happiness.  Phlegm (white) meant passivity or coolness.  Melancholy or black bile meant depressed or saddened. These four humors were thought to determine the emotional and physical condition of the person; if an imbalance occurred, disease resulted.  In order to restore the proper balance, colored garments, oils, plasters, and ointments were used to treat disease and restore balance.  These ideas carried up to the Middle Ages until the rise of Christianity when the Church banned the healing practices of the Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans.  “The ancient healing arts, preserved by secret oral tradition passed on to the initiates, thus became hidden or occult” (Graham 1998). 

            People continued to pass on the ancient traditions and therefore to assume that color played a vital role in health and behavior.  The church persecuted many as pagans or witches, but some gained notable fame and success.  Much work done in the field of color was dismissed as unscientific, such as studies of Augustus Pleasanton in the 1870s.  One claim made by Pleasanton that was dismissed said that blue light was effective in treating disease and pain.  But in 1990, scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of science reported on the successful use of blue light in the treatment of addictions, eating disorders, jaundice, impotence, and depression. 

     Also skeptically looked upon were the unempirical work of Max Luscher, a professor of psychology.  He developed a psychological theory, which he did not back with empirical evidence, that color for man originated in early history.  He believed that the two basic environments of darkness (dark blues) and daylight (yellows) accounted for the differences in metabolic rate glandular secretions appropriate to the energy levels required for nighttime sleep or daytime activity. He developed a color test upon which he believed personality could be determined, but conventional psychology dismisses the possibility of breaking down the complete complex personality of a human based on color, though the color test may be useful in conjunction with various other testing methods.  Modern research now believes that exposure to light and darkness is linked to hormonal secretions of melatonin and serotonin.  Melatonin is linked to sleep, and is found in high levels in people suffering from eating disorders and seasonal depression during the winter months; whereas serotonin is a stimulant that is produced during the day and increases with exposure to natural sunlight or artificial full spectrum lamps. 

Before continuing, let’s first examine how the human eye experiences color.  In the physical world, there are no colors, only wavelengths.  The human eye has the ability to distinguish hundreds of wavelengths.  The eye is able to see when light stimulates the retina. The retina consists of rods and cones. The rods, located in the peripheral retina, allow us night vision but cannot distinguish color. The cones, located in the center of the retina, allow us to perceive color during daylight conditions but operate poorly in dark conditions.  For this reason, when walking outside at night, object may appear in shades of gray or black instead of their normal coloration.  The cones each contain a light sensitive pigment, which is sensitive over a range of wavelengths. Each visible color is a different wavelength within the color spectrum. Genes contain the coding instructions for these pigments, and if the coding instructions are incorrect, the wrong pigments are produced, resulting in a color deficiency or more commonly called color blindness (Kosslyn, Rosenberg 2003).  The color the human eye is able to experience is minute in comparison to the vastness of wavelengths that exist.  Observe the diagram below:

Dr. Bill Blair (

            Though there is a biological base for our color vision, everyone experiences wavelengths differently.  Color deficiencies, personal experiences and cultural factors may contribute to how we react to these colors.  Is how we react to colors in part also genetically encoded?  Traditional studies tend to lend themselves to the concept that colors in one’s environment plays a more significant role than genetics.  One factor that also must be considered is that people can develop links of given stimuli to specific behaviors and that these linkages will very quickly override many of the secondary or more subtle innate responses.  In simpler terms, a learned response to a color will prevail over any other response normally expected to take place.  An example of this can be seen in an article from the website Color Matters- The Body:

 A mother watches a bright red car zoom by. A second later her child is on the ground, critically hurt, hit by the car. The child survives, but the trauma is so instant, so deep, the woman's association of bright red to horrible loss is forever buried in her psyche. A linkage has been formed. Ever since then, when she sees that bright red, her heart races and an intense fear moves through her. She rejects that color and keeps it away... Does bright red equal horrid loss then? To her it does. It's a uniquely formed, special case linkage. But to you, or me that same bright red might mean something good, a warm Valentine's moment, a spouse's beautiful lips, whatever. The situational induced linkage of that bright red to that traumatic fearful moment overrides whatever response to the color might otherwise prevail.


In environmental study with color and light, conducted by visual-arts professor Harry Wohlfarth and Catharine Sam of the University of Alberta, the color environment of fourteen severely handicapped and behaviorally disordered eight to eleven years old was altered. It involved substituting yellow and blue for orange, white, beige and brown and replacing fluorescent lights with full-spectrum ones. After a change in color and lighting environment, the children's aggressive behavior diminished and then blood pressure dropped. Interestingly, the same effects were found in both blind and sighted children in Wohlfarth and Sam's study. This suggests that color energies affect in ways that transcend seeing. One hypothesis is that neurotransmitters in the eye transmit information about light to the brain even in the absence of sight, and that this information releases a hormone in the hypothalamus that has numerous effects on our moods, mental clarity, and energy level. In what Wohlfarth calls the science of Colorpsychodynamics, colors that seem to increase blood pressure, pulse, and respiration rate are, in order of increasing effects, warm colors such as red, orange and yellow (Sasaki 2002).  This idea is reminiscent to Luscher’s theory involving glandular secretions. 

Graham, 1998, relates and interesting story to the reader in which she conversed with the governer of a newly built prison in which each of the four wings had been painted a different color: red, yellow, blue and green.  Prisoners were randomly places in each of the four wings.  Violent behavior among inmates occurred most commonly in the red, and yellow wings in comparison to the blue and green wings.  Experimental research has found that viewing red light increases a subject’s strength by 13.5 percent and a 5.8 percent increase in electrical activity of the arm muscle.

Pink has been found to have a tranquilizing and calming effect within minutes of exposure in prisons. It suppresses hostile, aggressive, and anxious behavior. Dr. Alexander Schauss, Ph.D., director of the American Institute for Biosocial Research in Tacoma Washington, was the first to report the suppression of angry, antagonistic, and anxiety ridden behavior among prisoners: “Even if a person tries to be angry or aggressive in the presence of pink [specifically Baker-Miller Pink], he can't. The heart muscles can’t race fast enough. It’s a tranquilizing color that saps your energy. Even the color-blind are tranquilized by pink rooms.”  In spite of these powerful effects, there is substantial evidence that these reactions are short term. Once the body returns to a state of equilibrium, a prisoner may regress to an even more agitated state (Color Matters-The Body 2002).  Pink holding cells are now widely used to reduce violent and aggressive behavior among prisoners, sources reporting a reduction of muscle strength in inmates within 2.7 seconds (Graham 1985).

“One would indeed be an iconoclast to reject color entirely. Its role in all forms of life is too evident to be either denied or ignored” (Birren 1961).   Upon investigating this topic, I believe that color does play a significant role in our lives. I also recognize that personal experiences and culture will help to define color in certain and crucial ways, such as in the example of the mother and the red car.  I take specific interest in the use of light in reducing depression and treating other disorders, seeing as it has a direct effect on the brain and nervous system resulting in the release of hormones and thus affecting behavior.  Researchers in the field admit that the uses of color and the effects they have on behavior is just currently beginning to win over the attention and investigation it deserves.  Hopefully in the future, the mystery of color will be unraveled to the benefit of people everywhere. 




Works Cited


Birren, Faber.  Color Psychology and Color Therapy: A Factual Study of the Influence of Color on Human Life.  University Books, 1961.


Blair, Bill, Ph.D. What are Those Squiggly Lines? Using Light to Learn About the Universe.  September 17, 2002 <>.


Graham, Heather.  Color Therapy-Then & Now.  Article  September 17, 2002   <>.


Kosslyn, Stephen M., Robin S. Rosenberg.  Fundamentals of Psychology: The Brian, The Person, The World.  Boston: Pearson Education, Inc., 2003.


Morton, J. L.  Drunk Tank Pink.  Color Maters-The Body.  September 18, 2002   <>.


Sasaki, Hiroshi.  Color psychology.  September 15, 2002. <>.
Color Psychology.


Wu, Shelly, Ph.D.  The Psychology of Color.  September 17, 2002 <>.