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Watch: what is colour psychology?

We spend hours choosing the right colours to paint rooms. Doctors surgeries are painted white to suggest cleanliness, living rooms are painted blue to slow respiration, and there are even examples of prison cells being painted pink to promote calm. But does colour really have an effect on our psyche?

Dr Josh Newton, Associate Dean, Research, from Deakin University’s Faculty of Business and Law, notes that there are two potential mechanisms that inform the meanings we give to and take from colours: an evolutionary mechanism and a cultural mechanism.

Dr Newton explains the cultural mechanism as ‘the meanings and values we attach to a particular colour as a result of some social or cultural experience’.

Cadbury is a prime example, Dr Newton says. ‘Cadbury’s registered a specific shade of purple as part of their trademark so that no other chocolate manufacturers could use it. That shade of purple is now associated with Cadbury’s chocolate.’

On the other hand, the evolutionary mechanism is ingrained into the human psyche as a function of the evolutionary process.

‘From an evolutionary standpoint, particularly for mammals, the colour red is often used to signal mate attractiveness,’ Dr Newton explains. ‘So, you’ve probably seen those monkeys at Melbourne Zoo that have a bare, red bum. For these monkeys, the red bum is a way of signalling their sexual availability and that they will be a good mate.

‘A similar effect may also occur among humans. Studies have found that wearing red-coloured clothing can increase your perceptions of attractiveness.’

While the evolutionary mechanism may be at play, many studies come back with a large degree of variability, suggesting that the meanings people give colour is strongly informed by a person’s cultural background rather than by some collective evolutionary mindset.

So, is colour psychology a cultural or evolutionary phenomenon? Dr Newton explains that the two mechanisms are not mutually exclusive. ‘If you were to try and identify why a colour gives rise to certain outcomes, you would probably end up implicating one or both of those mechanisms’.

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Dr Josh Newton
Dr Josh Newton

Associate Dean, Research, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University
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