Myth vs research
It’s a common theme among design bloggers to make claims on the effects of colours in web design. Whilst it is certainly true that you can use colours to elicit emotional responses from a viewer, it’s rare to find a blog that has actually gone to the trouble of reading and referencing empirical research that support these claims.
So for this month’s Web Design Psychology post, I have sourced a paper from the Journal of Experimental Psychology and will be exploring the evidence-based effects of colours on emotions below.
In 1994, whilst the internet was still a fresh young thing, two established psychologist Valdez and Mehrabian  conducted a study to investigate emotional reactions to color. Employing the Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance emotion model, they studied people’s reactions to hue, saturation, and brightness, using colour chips from the Munsell color system.
3D representation of the 1943 Munsell renotations
Prior to this study, experimental research [2,3] had already found correlations between colours and arousal. For instance, red and yellow were generally more arousing than blue and green, when measured via physiological changes in the body (e.g., galvanic skin response [GSR], electroencephalograph). Broader studies, such as that carried out by Wexner in 1954  had found general associations between words and colours:
Red = ‘exciting’ , ‘stimulating’
Blue = ‘secure/comfortable’ , ‘tender/soothing’
Orange = ‘disturbing/distressed/upset‘
Black = ‘powerful/strong/masterful’
However, since much of the early research investigating color preferences did not control for the three dimensions of color – hue, saturation, brightness – a lot of the early research was considered methodologically flawed, and therefor of limited use.
Other studies found that the effect of colour on perception had much wider implications to our day-to-day lives.
One researcher looked at the effect of colour on job application, and discovered that the colour of clothing had strong effects on the rating that males gave female job applicants. In this particular study, females wearing dark jackets were seen as more competent and powerful that those in light-coloured jackets, and the brightness of the women’s clothes had a greater impact on the males’ ratings than did facial expressions .
Not only did these findings highlight the fact that colour elicits a range of emotional responses, but also that these responses can overpower other salient features (such as facial expressions) that we normally rely on to inform our decisions and responses.
Universal responses to colour
In the 70′s, a cross-cultural study  looking at people from 23 different cultures found that there were consistent (and apparently universal) effects of hue on our emotions:
These were interesting findings, but did little to prove thorough and specific relationships between particular colours and their related emotional responses.
Taking all this previous research into account, our psychologists Valdez and Mehrabian designed their study to control for these factors, and their results were significant and specific. Using the Pleasure-Arousal-Dominance emotion model, they found that there was a highly predictable relationship between colour brightness and saturation, and emotional response. Saturation and brightness did evidence strong and consistent effects on emotions, and the correlations for pleasant / arousing / dominant colours are shown below:
Most pleasant hues:
Blue, blue-green, red-purple, purple, purple-blue
Least pleasant hues:
Most arousing hues:
Green-yellow, blue-green, and green
Least arousing hues:
Purple-blue and yellow-red
Green-yellow induced greater dominance than red-purple
 Valdez, P & Mehrabian, A. (1994). Effects of Color on Emotions.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 123, 394-409
 Jacobs, K. W., & Hustmyer, F. E. (1974). Effects of four psychological primary colors on GSR, heart rate, and respiration rate.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 38, 763-766.
 Wilson, G. D. (1966). Arousal properties of red versus green.
Perceptual and Motor Skills, 23, 942-949.
 Wexner, L. B. (1954). The degree to which colors (hues) are associated with mood-tones.
Journal of Applied Psychology, 38, 432-435.
 Damhorst, M. L., & Reed, J. A. P. (1986). Clothing color value and facial expression: Effects on evaluations of female job applicants.
Social Behavior and Personality, 14, 89-98.
 Adams, F. M., & Osgood, C. E. (1973). A cross-cultural study of the affective meanings of color.
Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 4, 135-156.