color psychology, colour psychology, red, red in film, red in history, red in behavior, red in wardrobe, red in marketing, red in branding, the color red, the colour red

The Impact of Red: Exploring the Fascinating Psychology Behind this Passionate Color

Dec 04, 2023

Let's dive into color and the captivating world of red, the color most tied to passion - whether it's driven from anger or love.

How does this color make us love, hate and BUY all with the same force of action?

Did you ever bring your teacher a red apple? 

Or get pegged with that rubber red ball during a heated dodgeball game at recess or gym class?

Have you ever wondered why red cars get more speeding tickets?

At its core, red isn't just a color; it's a visceral force that taps into our primal instincts, invoking a passionate allure and magnetic pull. Positioned as a psychological primary color, red triggers immediate and measurable physical reactions.

Red is the color that most says: DO SOMETHING.

This color makes us act. Instinct plays a huge role when we see red. 

Scientifically, it stands at the forefront of the visible light spectrum, making it the first color humans perceive after birth - after black and white. It's the color of urgency, love, and intense emotions, manifesting in physiological responses like increased blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and a flushed complexion.

Understanding red's profound impact on human psychology is to unravel a complex tapestry where color becomes a language, conveying emotions and commanding attention.

 

History

Red, as a color, has woven a rich and diverse tapestry throughout human history, leaving an indelible mark on art, culture, and symbolism. Tracing its roots to prehistoric times, red emerged as one of the earliest pigments used by our ancestors. Cave paintings in various parts of the world, such as those in South Africa dating back 40,000 to 170,000 years, employed red ochre clays or cinnabar to convey messages and stories by Stone Age hunters and gatherers, who used red clay to make body paint. This ancient connection to red as a medium for expression and ritualistic practices suggests its significance in early human societies.

In civilizations like ancient Egypt, red pigments played a crucial role in ceremonial practices and body adornment during celebrations and victories. Additionally, the use of the madder plant's roots for red dyes persisted for centuries, showcasing the enduring appeal of this vibrant hue. In Northern Australia, there is a rock art site called Djulirri that has a red painting of Thylacoleo dating back to 11,000 BCE – over 11,000 paintings are stretched over this site! 

The cultural and religious symbolism of red continued to evolve across different civilizations. In ancient Rome, red became synonymous with the god of Mars and, by extension, the god of war. The association was so profound that the planet Mars derived its name from its distinct reddish appearance. The Romans used red pigments from the mineral cinnabar to create their bright shade of red, called vermillion. This pigment was actually, in itself, highly toxic mercury. Red found its way into significant societal events, such as weddings in ancient Rome, where brides donned red shawls symbolizing love and fidelity. 

The Jin, Ming, Song, Han, and Zhou dynasties all favored the color for their emperors. In a painting of the Tang Era, eleven of the thirteen Emperors are in red robes. The Han Dynasty also used lead tetroxide for their red pigments between 200 BC and 200 AD.

In the 1500s, the Spaniards discovered an amazing shade of red being made by the Aztecs. They would crush cochineal bugs off of cacti, creating shades like kermes. This became their new hot commodity to trade in Europe, which became immensely popular. 

The color's ties to royalty persisted through the Renaissance and Baroque periods, where red lac, a vibrant shade derived from organic materials like plants and insects, became a favorite among artists. You can see the ties between red and royalty with The Assumption, a painting by Titian that shows God, the Virgin Mary, and two apostles in vermillion-colored robes. 

Over time, red became a symbol of revolutions, including the French and Cuban revolutions, representing the quest for freedom and societal transformation.

The young Princess Elizabeth I showed her preparations for becoming Queen by sitting for a portrait dressed in red, signaling to the nation her intentions of strength. Revolutions worldwide followed suit, using red to symbolize their quest for freedom, like with the French revolution and the Cuban Revolution. 

 In the Middle Ages, the Pope and Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church wore red to symbolize the blood of Christ and the Christian martyrs. 

In 1868, German Chemists found a way to synthetically create red dye, calling it Alizarin, which became its permanent replacement. 

As red continued to hold sway in diverse historical contexts, its journey through history reflects its enduring role as a communicator of emotions, ideologies, and societal shifts. It is a power-player, supporting intentions of survival, nobility and even revolution throughout history.

 

Science

 Red is the first color we see in the visible light spectrum. 

If you’re looking at a rainbow, for example, it’s always the top color. 

It has a dominant wavelength of 625-740 nanometers- right past that is infrared light. 

There are three color models: 

  •       RYB (red, yellow, blue - the most commonly accepted color model used in paint)
  •       CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow – used in printing)
  •       RGB (red, green, blue – used in TVs and computers)

The RGB color model stands for ‘red, green, blue’ which is an additive color model where these three colors can be mixed to form any other color. Basically, this is the model we get color hex codes from that we use on TVs and computers, or even our websites!

The CMY and RGB models agree that the complementary color to red is cyan, which is a more blue-green color. RYB clearly states it is green. 

The visible light spectrum is a bit easier to understand when you think about sunrises and sunsets. When the sun is the furthest away from our eye, we see the longest spectrum of light. This is why we see the blues and yellows of the sky during the day and the longer wavelengths of oranges and red at sunrise and sunset. 

Red is the first color humans see after black and white.

It’s also the first color babies see. When someone has a traumatic brain injury that gives them temporary color blindness, red is the first color they start to see again. 

In 1942, a Russian Scientist named SV Krakov conducted a study to figure out of our bodies had a tangible, psychical reaction to color. He would put people in front of a blue light and measure their pulse, blood pressure, and pupil dilation. After nothing but a reduction in stress levels after looking at blue, he tried red. Red increased blood pressure, shot up the heart rate, and caused the pupils to dilate. 

Other scientific experiments involving human reactions have shown that red demonstratively strengthened motor reactions when viewed right before a task. 

Let’s take a moment to get into some cool science about red hair!  It’s surprisingly complicated, that’s for sure, and rare. Only in 2019 did scientists get to the root cause of the hair color. 

On a very basic level, our hair color is determined by two types of melanin pigments: eumelanin (dark) and pheomelanin (light). If you have darker hair color and skin tone that tans easily, you produce more eumelanin. If you have lighter hair and lighter skin tone- you produce more pheomelanin. But there’s a traffic cop, otherwise known as an MCIR gene, that tells the hair how much pigment to produce and what kind – it’s called an ‘MSH’ signal. People with red hair, or ‘redheads,’ have a variation in their MCIR gene from both parents (called polymorphism) that creates little to no eumelanin.It stimulates the production of red-pigmented hair as a result. 

Here’s what’s weird. Even people with the MCIR gene variation from both parents didn’t always end up having red hair. 

Dr. Ian Jackson, who supervised the study on redheads, wanted to figure out why. He studied over 343,000 cases in the UK. He and his team found eight other genes that affected red hair coloring. 

Genes that controlled hair shape and texture even affected the outcome of red hair. Clearly, having red hair is a genetic miracle! 

 

Behavior

Human behavior undergoes a fascinating dance with the color red, prompting a cascade of physiological and psychological responses. Numerous studies have delved into the impact of red on attraction and desirability.

A notable experiment conducted by the University of Rochester in 2008 revealed that women framed by or wearing red were consistently rated as more attractive and sexually desirable by men compared to the same women presented in other colors.

This phenomenon held true across various conditions, indicating that the color red possesses a unique allure that transcends cultural and contextual boundaries. The influence of red extends beyond mere attraction; it extends to behavioral reactions.

Andrew J. Elliot, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, found that exposure to red negatively impacted students' test performance. The color seemed to evoke a subtle threat, triggering stress responses that hindered cognitive performance. This suggests that while red may heighten immediate attention and arousal, its prolonged exposure can lead to adverse effects on cognitive functions.

Beyond romantic and academic contexts, red plays a pivotal role in signaling urgency and action in everyday scenarios. The ubiquitous red stop sign serves as a prime example.

Studies have indicated that the color red is intrinsically linked to the fight-or-flight response, inducing physiological reactions like increased heart rate and heightened blood pressure. Such reactions are deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history, where red signals danger or a need for swift action.

This inherent connection to survival instincts is evident in various aspects of human behavior, from stopping at traffic signals to reacting promptly to emergency alerts.

Understanding these nuanced interactions between red and human behavior unveils the intricate ways in which color influences our perceptions, emotions, and responses in the tapestry of daily life.

 

 

 

 

Nature

In the natural world, red manifests itself vividly in various forms, casting a mesmerizing spectacle across plant and animal life.

One of the most prominent displays of red occurs in the avian realm, where vibrant plumage often serves as attention-grabbing desirability among males. From the resplendent feathers of parrots to the elaborate crests of cardinals, red serves as a visual beacon, signaling vitality, attraction, and sometimes, a hierarchical display of dominance.

The evolutionary dance of color in nature finds its expression in red fruits too, a brilliant strategy employed by plants to entice seed dispersers. Ripe apples, succulent strawberries, and tempting cherries owe their alluring red hues to pigments like anthocyanins, captivating not just our taste buds but also acting as a visual cue that the fruit is ready for consumption.

As summer wanes and autumn unfurls its palette, the green chlorophyll of leaves recedes, making way for the spectacular autumnal display where red takes center stage. Anthocyanins, the same pigments responsible for red fruits, create the breathtaking reds and purples of fall foliage. This seasonal transformation, a symphony of reds amidst the greens and golds, is a testament to nature's cyclical artistry. Beyond its aesthetic allure, red in nature serves a practical purpose — it's easily visible against the backdrop of blue skies and green foliage, enhancing communication among species. Whether it's the red warning flash of a cardinal in flight or the crimson blush of a ripening apple on a tree, the color red in nature is an eloquent language, painting stories of life, attraction, and survival.

Red's prevalence in the natural world isn't merely a visual phenomenon; it's an intricate dance of pigments and light wavelengths, shaping our perceptions of ripeness and readiness. As the visible spectrum's longest wavelength, red finds resonance in music, correlating with the note "G" and resonating with lower sounds.

 

Film

In film and television, the color red is no passive bystander; it's a dynamic force that commands attention and evokes a spectrum of reactionary emotions.

Often referred to as "The Caffeinated Color," red doesn't just sit on the screen; it pulsates with energy, injecting scenes with vitality and purpose. Whether it's the iconic red shoes in The Wizard of Oz or the little girl's red coat in Schindler's List, red transcends its visual presence to become a narrative element in itself.

Since it lies on the longest end of the visible light spectrum, it feels like it’s coming at us. 

The color does not have a moral imperative, it fuels anyone wearing it or in its environment, like the red shoes worn by Dorothy and the witch in The Wizard Of OZ.

Red can empower the good guy or the bad guy.

When I think of red, I see the red apple from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Jessica Rabbit, or the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List

The warmer the red in film, the more it’s seen as sensuous and full of passion. 

Think Shakespeare in Love with the warm red bedspread.

The colder the red, the more murderous it will feel. 

Filmmakers wield red as a potent tool to convey passion, power, and urgency. The warmth of red can symbolize sensuality and love, as seen in the crimson hues of a romantic setting, while colder tones of red may heighten tension, hinting at danger or suspense.

Take, for instance, the TV show Only Murders in the Building, where red is ingeniously used as a character never seen but omnipresent, symbolizing the underlying theme of murder.

Red isn't just a color choice in film and television; it's a storyteller, shaping our emotional responses and adding depth to the visual narrative.

When filmmakers know what they’re doing, they use red to prompt action, passion, empowerment, and even murder. 

 

Wardrobe

The color red holds a powerful and multifaceted role in fashion and wardrobe choices. Whether it's a bold red dress, a pair of striking red heels, or a classic red tie, this color has the innate ability to make a statement and convey a range of emotions.

Red is often associated with passion, confidence, and assertiveness, making it a popular choice for individuals who want to stand out and leave a lasting impression.

Iconic figures like Marilyn Monroe in her red lipstick and Audrey Hepburn in her elegant red Givenchy dress from Funny Face have exemplified the timeless allure of red in fashion, showcasing its ability to exude sophistication and glamour.

Beyond its glamorous associations, red also plays a crucial role in creating brand identity and recognition in the fashion industry.

Luxury brands like Christian Louboutin have incorporated red into their designs as a signature element. The red-lacquered soles of Louboutin heels have become synonymous with luxury and high fashion, instantly recognizable by fashion enthusiasts worldwide.

This strategic use of red not only adds a touch of glamour to the products but also serves as a visual cue for brand identification.

In the world of wardrobe choices, red emerges as a color that goes beyond mere aesthetics, becoming a symbol of confidence, passion, and iconic fashion moments.

Read more about red as a powerful wardrobe color here.

 

Interior Design

In interior design, the color red takes center stage, commanding attention and infusing spaces with energy, warmth, and a touch of drama.

The strategic use of red in interior design can evoke a range of emotions and set the tone for a room. Red is often employed in spaces where vibrancy and a sense of high energy are desired, such as living rooms or dining areas. A red accent wall, for instance, can serve as a bold focal point, adding depth and personality to an otherwise neutral space.

In traditional interior design, red has been associated with opulence and regality, seen in grand spaces like the Red Room of the White House, which exudes a sense of regality and formality.

Beyond its traditional associations, modern interior designers are embracing red in innovative ways, introducing it in unexpected places or using varying shades to achieve different effects. In contemporary kitchens, red cabinetry or appliances can inject a burst of energy and drama, creating a dynamic and lively atmosphere.

Additionally, furniture pieces like red sofas or accent chairs can serve as statement pieces, instantly drawing the eye and infusing a sense of passion into the overall design.

The versatility of red in interior design allows it to transition seamlessly between classic and contemporary styles, making it a powerful tool for designers seeking to create spaces that are not only visually appealing but also emotionally resonant.

"Red isn't always the way to go, but it certainly can be the perfect fit in certain situations to bring more energy, excitement and action-taking to the home." - Michelle Lewis, quoted in Homes & Gardens, referencing Lady Gag's red rug.

 

Branding

In branding, the color red emerges as a potent tool for eliciting specific emotions and fostering brand recognition.

Red is associated with passion, energy, and action, making it a compelling choice for brands aiming to convey a sense of dynamism and urgency.

Fast-food giants like McDonald's strategically leverage red in their branding, using it to stimulate appetite and create a sense of excitement. The iconic golden arches against a red background not only capture attention but also subconsciously communicate speed and efficiency, aligning with the fast-paced nature of the industry.

Similarly, Coca-Cola employs red as a key element in its branding strategy, with the vibrant red color of its logo contributing to the brand's global recognition and association with joy and refreshment.

Beyond the realm of consumables, tech companies also recognize the power of red in branding.

Examples like YouTube and Netflix strategically use red in their logos to signify action and entertainment. YouTube's play button, prominently displayed in red, signals to users that engaging content awaits with just a click. Netflix, with its red "N" logo, taps into the color's association with excitement and intensity, aligning with the streaming platform's goal of providing compelling and engaging content.

The consistent use of red in these brands not only contributes to visual appeal but also establishes a strong and memorable brand identity.

In essence, the strategic application of red in branding goes beyond aesthetics; it serves as a silent yet impactful communicator, influencing consumer perceptions and shaping brand personalities.

To read more on the use of red in your branding strategy, explore this blog.

 

Marketing

In the dynamic landscape of marketing, the color red takes center stage as a strategic tool to captivate audiences, evoke emotions, and drive consumer behavior.

The use of red in call-to-action (CTA) buttons on websites is a prevalent tactic to prompt immediate responses. Brands often employ contrasting red hues for CTA buttons, creating visual prominence and encouraging users to click, whether it's to make a purchase, subscribe, or explore further. This practice aligns with the psychological impact of red, triggering a sense of urgency and action. Notable examples include Amazon, where the "Add to Cart" button prominently features red, subtly urging shoppers to take the decisive step in the purchasing process.

Social media platforms harness the psychological effects of red to enhance engagement and convey specific messages. For instance, platforms like Facebook and Twitter incorporate red elements in their logos and interfaces. Facebook's notification icon, featuring a red notification badge, is a prime example of using red to grab attention and prompt users to check updates. Twitter's iconic bird logo, although primarily blue, strategically uses red for its beak, symbolizing interaction and communication. These platforms understand the visual language of red and leverage it to create a sense of immediacy and importance, driving user interaction and participation. In essence, red in marketing transcends mere aesthetics; it serves as a strategic tool for brands to communicate urgency, incite action, and enhance the overall impact of their messages across various channels.

To learn more about the use of red in marketing - and if it could boost your marketing results - read here.

 

 

Conclusion

Implementing red into our daily lives becomes a strategic and thoughtful process.

It’s a very dominant color used in our world today, as it always has been – in large quantities.

What I love the most about the color is that it can strengthen any goal, desire, or truth. It empowers anything. 

Recognizing its dual nature—both a stimulant and a provocateur—allows us to navigate its impact consciously and with the right respect paid to such a rich, historical color. Red isn't a one-size-fits-all solution; its presence in different environments and contexts yields varied reactions.

From the boardroom to the bedroom, the strategic use of red can prompt attention, passion, or action. However, its potential power and control necessitates a nuanced approach, as an overdose of red can potentially induce stress and overwhelm.

If someone is too much in their head or has difficulty acting on a goal, this is the color I pull out for them to start using. 

If I’m on stage and need someone to pay attention, I wear red. This is why the TEDx stage is red! 

It makes us center in the moment and see what’s really happening.

Small yet intentional changes, like altering desktop backgrounds or incorporating red accents, can significantly influence our behavior positively. Red isn't just a color; it's an active participant in the symphony of our lives, prompting us to question, observe, and consciously integrate its language into our personal narratives.

The undeniable physical, behavioral, scientific, and emotional reactions to red position it not merely as a color but as a key communicator in the intricate tapestry of human connection.

COMMENT: Will you let red speak in your life's language? What facets of your existence is red whispering to that you haven't noticed before?

 

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