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The psychology of colour – 5 effects on human behaviour you didn’t know about

Colour affects people’ judgements, decision making, perceptions, and behaviour. Yet marketers all too often ignore colour when designing content. Used the right way, the right colours can enhance engagement (through arousal). Used the wrong way – and colours can actually repel engagement.

What effects to colours have on people? And how should you be using colours in your content?

Here’s what you need to know.

1. Colours enhance expectations

One thing colours do is enhance, or magnify, people’s expectations. For example, one study found that a refrigerator is perceived to be better at cooling food products when the inside colour is blue. Another study found that people perceive the attractiveness of skin cream differently when the colour is more earthy, and yet another study found that beverages green in colour were perceived to be sourer (even when they weren’t). People’s assumptions about what they’re seeing will change depending on the dominant colour.

How can you use this when creating content? Make sure the dominant colour you choose (see table below) is consistent with the feelings you are trying to evoke. Don’t for example use Red or Orange if you’re trying to signal trust, and don’t use blue or green when you’re trying to evoke positive emotions.

2. Colour increases engagement

 We’ve known for some time that physiological and affective arousal increases content sharing motives, and that some colours are more arousing than others, so it’s perhaps not surprising that some colours increase engagement with online content. Some studies for example have found that certain website colour combinations increase motives to recommend the website. Blue for example is viewed as more positive than yellow, and more likely to be recommended.

How to use this when designing content? The aim of seeding content online is almost always to earn engagement (shares). So it makes sense to use more arousing high chroma colours (Reds and Oranges) if the aim is to maximise shares.

3. Time perception

A little known effect of colour is that certain combinations, shades, and tints can influence people’s perceptions of time. For example, waiting times can be perceived as being shorter when colours are associated with relaxing states (e.g., pink and warm pastel/low chroma colours). Warm ambient light configurations in stores, emulating the same tints and strengths in a typical home, have been found to increase the amount of time spent browsing in a store.  Other studies have found that the speed with which consumers complete their shopping tasks increases when the light source is intense and artificial.

How can you use this when creating content? Sometimes we want consumers to spend more time viewing our content, so it seems that adjusting the hues and tints to emulate attractive light sources might facilitate time spent viewing content. However, since we’re also usually trying to increase arousal for digital content (to maximise engagement), it seems there might be a trade-off between time spent processing your content, and maximising engagement.

4. Colour increases recognition and memory

Research has found that colour improves recognition and memory. For example, one study found that colour can increase brand recognition by up to 80%. The presence or absence of colour also affects recognition and memory – according to one study, coloured advertisements attracted 42% more readership than when the same advertisement was non-coloured. Research in the medical field has also shown that vivid colour cues can help to enhance the short-term memory performance of Alzheimer Disease patients.

How can you use this when crafting content? Obviously, we want our content to be memorable. Using minimal colours like black and grey might seem appropriate in certain design contexts, the research suggests its better to use colours (hues) in your content to maximise memorability.

5. Colour affects moods and feelings

Many studies have been done on this. For example, cool colours (blues/greens) have been found to be associated with calm, serene, and comfortable moods. A study by Kaya and Epps found that participants associated green colour with the feeling of calmness, happiness, comfort, peace, hope, and excitement. In contrast, Black was associated with the feeling of sadness, depression, fear, and anger. Warm colours (yellows, reds, oranges) were found to be associated with stressful and exciting moods.

Other studies have found that bright colours are associated with positive feelings, such as happiness, joy, and hope, and in general are perceived to be friendlier, more cultured, pleasant and beautiful. In contrast, dark colours may evoke negative feelings, such as boredom and sadness.

How to use it in content marketing? Well – if you’re producing content to affect people (which you should be), then you should be matching the dominant colour(s) to the emotions and feelings you’re aiming to activate. In perennial content, such as branding decisions, colours should be chosen to match your desired brand persona.

Below we’ve summarised the research on colour reactions and perceptions to help you choose the right colours for your next project.

ColourCognitive AssociationsContent use
Redenergy; action; desire; love; passionstimulating; exciting and motivating; attention-getting; assertive and aggressive
Orangeadventure and risk taking; social communication and interaction; friendship; divorceenthusiasm; rejuvenation; stimulation; courage; vitality; fun; playful
Yellowmind and intellect; happiness and fun; communication of new ideascreative; quick decisions; anxiety producing; critical; non-emotional; light; warmth; motivation
Greenharmony and balance; growth; hope; wealth; health; prestige; serenityrejuvenation; nurturing; dependable, agreeable and diplomatic; possessiveness; envy
Bluecommunication; peace and calm; honesty; authority; religion; wisdomconservative; predictable; orderly; rigid; trustworthy; dependable; secure; responsible
Purple/Violetinspiration; imagination; individuality; spirituality; royalty; sophistication; nostalgia; mystery; spiritualityempathy; controlled emotion; respectable and distinguished; impractical; immature; dignity; cynical
Pinkunconditional love; compassion; nurturing; hope; girlishcalming; non-threatening; affectionate; caring; immature
Brownstability; structure; security; natural and wholesome; earth-likecomforting; protective; materialistic; simplistic; durable
Greyneutrality; compromise; controlindecision; detached; depression; unemotional
Whiteinnocence and purity; new beginning; equality and unity; fairnessimpartial; rescuer; futuristic; efficient; clean; soft; noble
Blackmystery; power and control; prestige; value; timelessness; sophisticationformal, dignified and sophisticated; depressing; pessimistic