Color Associations

Associations with color are defined, in part by Faber Birren (the author of Color Psychology and Color Therapy) by our senses, language, objects (or forms), and personality characteristics. color conveys moods which attach themselves to human feelings and our psychic make-up in an almost automatic fashion. This section presents the results of color associations and how they compare to other published studies.


In association with touch, colors appear warm, cool, dry, and wet (to name a few). Birren states that this reaction is inherent in the psychological make-up of most humans and that perhaps it’s build upon the association of earthly elements such as the sun, fire, water, sky, and even deserts (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 168). Birren’s research gained support for the associations with ‘warm’ colors in 1940 by the Bulletin of the American Physical Society. S. M. Newhall, a researcher (and author) performed a study where he used 50 color samples to solicit responses from 297 observers to find out what colors best represented warm and cool. Newhall stated in his findings that, “the ‘warmest’ judgments show a minor mode in the violet…but a strikingly major mode in the red-orange region. The ‘coolest’ judgments exhibit no such marked mode, but range irregularly all the way from yellow through green and blue to purple.” (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 168) Birren replied to this study by writing, “In other words, a color such as red-orange is perceived an unquestionable ‘warm’ by most persons. And greater latitude is shown toward “cool” hues, for green may express quality to some, blue to others, and violet to still other.” Later Birren states that because red will stimulate the autonomic nervous system, blue (or colors of similar energy levels) will tend to relax the nervous system. Thus the reason for a variety of colors with associations to ‘cool’ correlate to the number of colors in a specific energy range (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 169).


The English language abounds with expressions pointing to connections between colors and emotions. It is possible, for instance, to be purple with rage or green with envy. Sometimes one sees the world through rose-tinted glasses; at other times one is feeling blue (Color and Emotions, 1). Bradford J. Hall, the author of Among Cultures: The Challenge of Communications, defines language as, “Language is a rule-governed symbol system that allows users to generate meaning and in the process, to define reality.” By this definition alone, we can see that words that convey color bring meaning to the person deriving information from that word. The survey asked for the participants to correlate a specific color to types of words that don’t inherently assume to be linked to any specific color. These words include, trust, security, speed, and high-technology. The word trust is defined by the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition as a Firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing. Below is a graphical representation of the survey results for the word ‘trust.’

Figure 4.1 - Association with Trust

As you can see, the color blue gathered the most results from the participants. Birren correlated the color blue to the emotional feeling of sadness or depression (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 170). This came about, Birren continues, because the color blue once referred to the insane, then expanded to symbolize mental depression in a general sense. A correlation between sadness and trust couldn’t be found, therefore, for the purposes of this study, this represents the first contradiction between published research and this survey.

The next word ‘security’ shares close relational ties (in terms of definition) to the previous word ‘trust.’ The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines security as Freedom from risk or danger; safety. One could say that without trust, security is hard to establish. Below is a graphical representation of the survey results for the word ‘security.’

Figure 4.2 - Association with Security

‘Speed’ is noted by Birren as a subjective impression for the color red in his Modern American Color Association table (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 143). Below is a graphical representation of the survey results for the word ‘speed.’

Figure 4.3
- Association with Speed

It’s easy to see that red dominated the results of this question. Red is considered to carry the association of intensity, rage, rapacity, and fierceness (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 143). Furthermore, R. Gerard, the author of Differential effects of colored lights on psychophysiological functions, maintained that “the color red and the emotion of anger both have an energizing effect that calls for actions and are therefore linked to each other.” Taking this statement into account, one could say that the word speed carries the same “call for action” that anger does (although the type of action may be different).


People tend to associate colors with the quality of objects they purchase. People will associate colors to objects that represent themselves like a new car, a home, or even a business suite. In the survey, several questions were asked with regards to colors and quality. The first question correlates color to the word(s) cheap and/or inexpensive. Below is a graphical representation of the survey results:

Figure 4.4 - Association with Cheap / Inexpensive

It’s clear that colors like orange, yellow, and brown are heavily associated with something cheap and/or inexpensive. What’s interesting about this pie chart is that it closely correlates to the pie chart presenting the participants least favorite colors:

Figure 4.5 - Least Favorite Color

The next phrase is ‘High quality.’ See below for the graphical representation of the survey results:

Figure 4.6 - Association with High Quality

As you can see, this is dominated by black and blue (together totaling 63% of the votes). This is another example presenting the differences between this survey and the results of Birren’s study. Birren states in his Modern American Color Associations table that Black represents spatial darkness, night, morning, funeral, depression, negation of spirit and death (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 143). Although he may be correct, there’s no indication that black, to him, represents anything close to high-quality. There are two reasons for this: first, I believe he is only writing about abstract associations. Second, he mentions black with regards to the ease of seeing the object. He states that colors like blue, purple, and black cannot be clearly focused on at distances. Furthermore, the aforementioned colors (especially black) are very hard to see as the level of light is lowered.

High technology is the last phrase examined under the object heading. High technology is used because it carries (through mass media) characteristics of high quality. In addition to high quality, high technology seems synonymous with reliability and dependability. Below are two pie charts that present the survey results for high-technology and reliability / dependability.

Figure 4.7 - Association with High Technology

Figure 4.8 - Association with Reliability / Dependability

By looking at the pie charts for ‘high quality,’ ‘high technology’ and ‘reliability / dependability’ one can see similarities. The two colors that most represent these three characteristics (according to the data) are black and blue.


color and personality could be a research project on its own. That said, I think it’s important to touch on the survey data and document some clear discoveries, but not to dive head-first into a area that needs a lot of attention to be done well. Three questions were asked in regards to color and personality: What color would you associate with courage / bravery? What color would you associate with fear / terror? And what color would you associate with fun?

Courage / bravery had an interesting result. See below for the results of the survey data:

Figure 4.9 - Association with Courage / Bravery

As you can see the colors blue, red and purple are fairly even in terms of percentage of results. Birren notes that purple has a historically close association with dignity. The phrase courage / bravery carry a close association with the word dignity in the United States. Birren’s study associates blue to the American flag and the armed services. He also states that red associates with the American flag and the fourth of July (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 143).

The next personality characteristic is fear and/or terror. See below for the results of the survey data:

Figure 5.0 - Association with Fear / Terror

The colors red and black govern this pie chart. Combined they assume 79% of the vote and are fairly equal in proportion. Birren associates blood, fire, danger, rage, and fierceness to red, while at the same time associating mourning, funereal, ominous, deadly, and death to black (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 143). It’s understandable that this pie chart contain the responses it does. One hypothesis for the 40-40 split in this section may have to do with the wording of the question. That is, one color may represent the word fear and the other terror. Since the two words were combined, there is no way to discover the reasoning without asking the simplified question.

Figure 5.1 - Association with Fun

Associations like: exciting, mystic, jovial, cheerful, peaceful, melancholy, youthful correlate to red, purple, orange, yellow, green, blue, and white respectively in Birren’s study (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 143). In Cailin Boyle’s book Color Harmony for the Web, Ms. Boyle states that use of primary colors help to produce lively and energetic web sites. The pie chart above contains all the primary colors and lacks both black and grey. Birren goes into more detail about this later in his book when he states, “The order in childhood, therefore, is red, blue, green, violet, orange, and yellow.” (Color Psychology and Color Therapy, 176). Although the results listed in the color survey data set don’t completely match the exact order of colors listed by preference, the colors noted by Birren for children are all present.