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Red Color Psychology, Symbolism and Practical Applications

Updated on February 19, 2016
Margaret Schindel profile image

Margaret has worked in the fashion world as well as the business world. She enjoys sharing her passion for fashion, crafting, and marketing.

A red rose is a traditional symbol of true love and passion.
A red rose is a traditional symbol of true love and passion. | Source

The Power of Red Affects All of Us - Whether We Know It or Not!

Use The Color of Passionate Emotions to Influence Others Through Branding, Fashion and Home Decor

Red is a powerful color that evokes very intense physiological and psychological reactions in us. We may love this color or hate it, but it's nearly impossible for us to be indifferent to it! In this article I will explore some of the key aspects of this endlessly fascinating color, including its physical and emotional impact on us, its powerful symbolism throughout history, the ways in which companies use the color red as a marketing tool to manipulate our emotional responses to their products and services, and how we can use it to influence other people's reactions to us, our homes and our social gatherings.

Understanding the Color Red's Undeniable Power

Understanding how this powerful color affects us can help us protect ourselves against subliminal manipulation to eat more and faster, talk more, gamble more and less prudently, etc., and also gives us a valuable tool to wield more professional and personal influence, excite more passion in our romantic partners, and help our guests enjoy themselves more when they visit our homes.

Read on to learn more about the compelling symbolism, physical and psychological effects, and practical uses of the color red to influence our own and others' moods and behavior.

"Seeing Red": How This Color Stimulates Our Bodies, Our Minds and Our Emotions

All colors affect us physically, psychologically and emotionally to varying degrees, but arguably red is our most exciting color, a stimulant that triggers powerful physical and emotional reactions in us. It has the longest wavelength of any color, which makes it seem closer to us than it is. That's the reason it tends to grab our attention first (and why it is so commonly used in signs related to danger and safety).

This color stimulates our adrenal glands and the secretion of adrenaline and other chemicals that make our hearts beat stronger and faster, increase blood flow to our brains and muscles, raise our blood pressure, and increase our blood sugar levels and respiration. Our pulses quicken, our hearts pound, we breath harder, and our muscles are energized and primed for action - reactions associated with the fight-or-flight response.

The color also affects our metabolism and stimulates our senses. Ever wonder why red features so prominently in food and beverage brands like Coca-Cola and in fast food restaurant decor like McDonald's? It's because that color stimulates appetite, lively conversation, enjoyment, and faster eating, so seeing red makes consumers more likely to eat more, enjoy their meals more, and leave the restaurant more quickly.

These involuntary physical reactions to seeing this color are closely linked to powerful emotions, such as fear, rage, lust, or exhilaration (the opposite of the peaceful, calming effect usually produced by the color blue). The specific emotional responses that the color triggers in any given person depending on individual preferences, social conditioning, cultural associations, and other contextual factors. For example, one person might wear it as a "power color" that gives him or her confidence, while another person might actively avoid the color because it makes him or her feel uneasy and uncomfortable. Different shades also can affect our responses to it; a deep, bluish "blood red" may evoke a somewhat different response than a bright, warm shade.

The color makes us more daring. According to the color experts at Pantone, "People will actually gamble more and make riskier bets when seated under a red light as opposed to a blue light. That's why Las Vegas is the city of red neon."

Neon Freemont Casino sign in Las Vegas
Neon Freemont Casino sign in Las Vegas | Source

Red Symbolizes Extreme Intensity, from Power to Passion, in Wars and in Weddings

It's a Color of Extremes

It symbolizes a wide range of concepts, some of which - like love and hate - seem diametrically opposed. But they share a common characteristic: intensity Depending on the context and culture, red may symbolize joy (intense happiness), rage (intense anger), dominance (intense power), fire (intense heat), victory (intense success), passion (intense emotion), lust (intense desire), war (extreme aggression) and revolution (intense upheaval / radical change), among other concepts.

Asian bride in a wedding kimono
Asian bride in a wedding kimono | Source

In Asia the color symbolizes good luck. It is the most popular color in China and an auspicious color for marriage throughout Asia. For example, Indian and Nepalese brides wear red saris and Japanese brides wear red kimono as symbols of happiness and good fortune.

It is also is a symbol of power and authority; it is estimated that 77% of the world's flags use it. It is the universal color for "stop" around the world.

And red is biologically "hard-wired" into humans as well as many other animal species as a symbol of sexual interest.

Red Color Symbolism is Rooted in Ancient History

In ancient Egypt it symbolized life, health and victory. Egyptians used red ochre to color their skin during celebrations. Egyptian women used it cosmetically to redden their lips and cheeks, as well as henna to tint their hair and nails. But it also symbolized heat, destruction and evil, as in the prayer, "Oh Isis, protect me from all things evil and red."

In Roman mythology the color is associated with Mars, the god of war. In the Middle Ages European princes and the Roman Catholic Church used it as a symbol of majesty and authority that also associated royal power with the Church's sacred rituals. The banner of the Byzantine emperors was red, and Charlemagne had his palace painted red and wore scarlet shoes to his coronation as a symbol of his power and authority. Brilliant scarlet clothing was worn only by the affluent and the aristocracy as a symbol of their wealth and status.

Large display of "Les Miserables" on building front
Large display of "Les Miserables" on building front | Source

A Revolutionary Color

During the French Revolution, the Jacobins and other social radicals adopted red to symbolize liberty and personal freedom; their flag was used as an iconic symbol in Les Miserables, and during the Reign of Terror women known as the "Furies of the guillotine" wore red caps and gathered around the red-painted guillotines to celebrate each execution. In the mid-1800s it became the color of the socialist movement.

In Imperial China the color was associated with fire, believed to be one of the five elements of which the world was composed (along with metal, wood, water, and earth, each of which was associated with a different color). During different Imperial Chinese dynasties, it colored the mansions of the nobility, palace gates, temple walls, and other architectural elements of imperial residences.

In the 20th century it symbolized revolutions, including the Bolshevik revolution, the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the Chinese Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedung (Mao Tse-tung) and was the symbol of Communist parties around the world. Painters like Henri Matisse and Mark Rothko used the color to evoke and express "human emotions tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on," as Rothko put it.

I wrote a song called "Red" and thinking about what that song means to me and all the different emotions on this album they're all pretty much about the tumultuous, crazy, insane, intense, semi-toxic relationships I've experienced in the last two years. All those emotions fanning from intense love, intense frustration, intense jealousy, confusion, all of that in my mind, all those emotions are red. There's nothing in between ... nothing beige about those feelings and so I called my record that.

— Taylor Swift

50 Shades of Red: Far-Ranging Meanings and Symbolism

The color of intensity and extremes is associated with and symbolic of many different important concepts and strong emotions. Some of the meanings and symbolism are quite different (e.g., sexuality vs. communism, murder vs. beauty), but more often than not they are nuanced shades of broader concepts, e.g., danger / urgency / emergency / alertness.

Following are 50 of the most common concepts symbolized by or associated with this color.


Color Associations and Symbolism Are Affected by a Person's Cultural Background and/or Personal Experiences

Ladies at a Red Hat Society meeting
Ladies at a Red Hat Society meeting | Source

What Is Your Most Powerful Association With the Color Red?

See results

Be Inspired to Live a More Meaningful Life

Author Pam Grout describes herself as "a hopeless romantic who still believes the world is a beautiful place, that people are noble and that anything is possible."

In her heartwarming and inspiring book Living Big: Embrace Your Passion and Leap into an Extraordinary Life, Grout shares stories of ordinary people who courageously overcame major challenges in order to make their lives meaningful by making a difference as a result of "Thinking Big", "Giving Big", "Blessing Big", "Imagining Big", etc.

Red Triggers Different Physical and Psychological Effects in Us Depending On the Situation

Research studies have found that the color has a variety of significant effects on us, some of them dependent on the context of the exposure. Here are a few of them:

  • Immediately after we see the color red, our muscles react faster and more forcefully.
  • Both men and women who are wearing the color are more attractive to members of the opposite sex.
  • Red can enhance our accuracy and performance on memory- and detail-oriented tasks such as proofreading.
  • It also can trigger anxiety driven by fear of failure that can hurt our performance in achievement-based contexts such as tests.

The context in which we see it dramatically affects its symbolic (and often subconscious) meaning to us and our resulting motivations. Context can cause it to mean opposite things to us (danger or attractiveness) that trigger reactions based on opposite motives (avoidance or approach).

For example, red stop signs, traffic lights and police or fire sirens are signs of danger that we are motivated to avoid, while red roses and Valentine's Day hearts signify romantic love and red lipstick, rouge and lingerie are signals of sexuality intended to attract prospective partners and motivate them to approach the source of that attraction.


The Effect of the Color Red on Our Motivation and Behavior is Different in a Romantic Context vs. an Achievement Context

In 2012 a fascinating research study was published about how the color red affects our motivation and behavior differently in a romantic context than in an achievement context.

  • Students who believed they were going to be interviewed about dating by a red-shirted interviewer walked down the corridor to the supposed interview room much faster than the students who expected to be interviewed about the same topic by a blue-shirted interviewer.
  • Conversely, students who believed they were going to be interviewed about their intelligence by a red-shirted interviewer walked toward the supposed interview room much more slowly than students who expected to be interviewed about the same topic by a blue-shirted interviewer.
  • There was no significant difference in the walking speed of participants who expected to be interviewed about dating by a blue-shirted interviewer or of those who believed they would be interviewed about their intelligence by a blue-shirted interviewer .

It seems reasonable to conclude from the results of this experiment that:

  • The participants who expected to be interviewed about dating by a red-attired interviewer were looking forward to the interview and anxious to get to it.

    So red in a romantic context motivated the students to approach.

  • The participants who expected to be interviewed about their intelligence by a red-attired interviewer were concerned about their performance in the interview and were reluctant to begin and literally dragged their feet.

    So red in an achievement context motivated students to avoid.

  • The blue shirts worn by some of the interviewers had no motivation effect - either to avoid or approach - on participants regardless of romantic vs. achievement contexts.

    So blue in either a romantic OR an achievement context had no effect on the students' motivation.

That's pretty compelling evidence that the psychological effect of this powerful color depends largely on context.

Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.

— Liz Smith, gossip columnist

Use Red Color Psychology to Influence Other People

Using Red in Home Decor to Set the Right Mood

Color often is used strategically by ourselves or by others — to influence our reactions at a subliminal level. We can take a cue from food marketers and use red to stimulate our appetites, or avoid it in eating contexts to help us lose weight.

For example, red kitchen appliances and dinnerware (plates, cups, etc.) may subtly sabotage someone who's trying to eat less food to lose weight, but using ruby glass drinking glasses or plates at your next dinner or holiday party can help your guests enjoy the food more and stimulate lively conversation.

Painting your bedroom walls crimson is not conducive to rest, relaxation and peaceful sleep, but if you are trying to create a sensual or romantic bedroom environment then scarlet lingerie, candles and/or satin sheets can help set the desired mood.

Red pillows, lamps or other home accessories can provide an exciting pop of color to enliven a mostly neutral color palette in your interior decorating scheme.

Here are a few specific suggestions of simple home decor accents that have have a big impact.

Stimulate the Senses with High Quality Scented Red Candles

Who doesn't adore candlelight? I have at least one candle in every room of my house, and several in most rooms, and there's a huge difference between a well-crafted candle made with high quality waxes, scents and molds and cheaper candles made with inferior wax and coloring and scent ingredients.

Root Candles is a family-owned company whose candles have been made in the USA since the 1800's. They use pure essential oils to scent the all-natural beeswax blend candles in their premium Legacy line, which includes bright red Hollyberry candles that look and smell absolutely wonderful and give off a soft, inviting, romantic glow.

Set the Stage for Romance with Red Satin Sheets

Nothing signals romance more clearly than lustrous red satin sheets! The color of passion combined with the silky feel of satin against your skin is highly conducive to sensual pleasure. Tip: Even if you save the sheets for Valentine's Day and other romantic occasions, you can use the satin pillowcases year-round to help keep your hair looking nice in the morning, especially if you like to set your hair before you go to bed.

A Cozy, Soft, Red Plush Throw is an Unspoken Invitation to Snuggle

A warm and cozy throw in an elegant dark red just begs to be shared with someone special!

The Fishers Finery Ultra Plush Throw, for example, is generously sized at 50 x 64 inches with fringe so it's plenty large enough for two adults to snuggle under. Neither you nor your partner will be able to resist running your hands over the soft and silky micro velvet fleece. This beautiful throw is also practical; it's machine washable for easy care.

Even if you're not looking to create a romantic ambiance, it adds a rich pop of color to your home decor, whether for holidays or year round.

Wear Red to Make a Powerful Impact, Get Attention, Attract the Opposite Sex or Enliven a Neutral Wardrobe

It's a classic and effective way to display power, authority and confidence. Have you noticed that executives, politicians, and other men in positions of power usually wear red ties to important meetings or events? That's no accident! They're wearing so-called "power ties". And for many years women in powerful positions such as politicians, public speakers and senior executives have worn red "power suits," jackets or accessories when they wanted to project authority.

Beauty, to me, is about being comfortable in your own skin. That, or a kick-ass red lipstick.

— Gwyneth Paltrow

Women have reddened their lips and cheeks since before Cleopatra to make themselves more attractive to men. Crimson lipstick, rouge and nail polish can create a sensual, attention-getting, physical focal point on one's body. That's why fire-engine lips and fingertips are a classic look that never goes out of style!

Wearing red lingerie or sleepwear is an overt and unmistakable symbol of sexuality.

A simple red belt, shoes, bag, jewelry or other accessories can add impact and transform a neutral beige, gray, black or white outfit into something more memorable and chic.

Red lipstick is the iconic color for a sexy or romantic lip print, maybe on the flap of an envelope to send a love letter SWAK (sealed with a kiss)
Red lipstick is the iconic color for a sexy or romantic lip print, maybe on the flap of an envelope to send a love letter SWAK (sealed with a kiss) | Source

Have You Ever Used Red Color Psychology to Influence Someone's Emotions or Behavior?

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    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 20 months ago from Massachusetts

      Susan, so glad you, too, have discovered the power of the color red! I think using it to grab visitors' attention in your website photos and graphics, especially for food photos, is really smart. Thanks for you kind words about my intro graphic!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 21 months ago from Arkansas USA

      So interesting what emotions the color red can evoke. As I've gotten older and gone through some major life trauma, I've become bolder and use red much more, especially in my home - and I love it! I'm also trying to use red more in photos and graphics on my websites, particularly as an accent in food photos. It certainly is an eye-catcher. Love your graphic at the top of the page!

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 21 months ago from Massachusetts

      Thanks so much, Redneck Lady Luck! I'll bet that neon sign looked familiar. ;)

    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 21 months ago from Canada

      Red is one of my favorite colors and you have covered it in an array of shades ;)

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 22 months ago from Massachusetts

      Good idea, Virginia! Wearing red can help us feel more confident and empowered. Thanks for your visit and your comment!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 22 months ago from Central Florida

      I like to wear a red shirt when I have something important to do.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 2 years ago from Massachusetts

      @RaintreeAnnie, I'm very glad you enjoyed my article on how the color red affects our emotions subliminally. Like you, I find color psychology fascinating! Thanks very much for your visit and your comment.

    • RaintreeAnnie profile image

      RaintreeAnnie 2 years ago from UK

      I like the colour red, but for me, as accents in clothing or home decor rather than a whole outfit or a whole red room. I find the psychology of colour fascinating. Very interesting page Thank you.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @CherylsArt: I agree completely, Cheryl! That's exactly why I wanted to help make more people aware of the ways in which colors can be used to influence them - to give them that knowledge so they have the power to make conscious choices that can override the subliminal effects. :)

    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 3 years ago from West Virginia

      Colors may have some influence, but overall, I think knowledge is more powerful. Once I found out more about certain restaurants, I've changed my eating habits, not matter the color.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @Brite-Ideas: Thanks so much for your wonderful comment, Barb! I think you'd look awesome in red - it's important to channel our inner "hoochy cooch" every once in a while, my "wild child" friend! ;)

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      what an original page! just loved it - enjoyed reading Taylor Swift's reason for calling her album Red (there's nothing beige about it, her reasoning...I can see that, lol) - I love read at Christmas but am not likely to decorate with it or wear it - I always feel wearing red as a blonde is little over the top for me (hoochy) lol

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @asereht1970: Thanks for your lovely feedback! I found doing the research for this article to be fascinating. :)

    • asereht1970 profile image

      asereht1970 3 years ago

      This is a very informative lens. Interesting to knowso much about the color red. Thanks for sharing.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @SimonJay: Thanks! I'm so glad you found my article on the psychological effects of the color red. I'm betting you're enjoying more energy and passion now that you've changed your room from blue to red. :)

    • SimonJay profile image

      SimonJay 3 years ago

      Interesting read and one of the reasons why my room is no longer blue but red.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @BLouw: Thanks so much, Barbara! I'm delighted that you enjoyed it. I learned a lot about red color theory when I was doing the research and found it fascinating. :D

    • BLouw profile image

      Barbara Walton 3 years ago from France

      What a super lens. There is so much to learn about the mind and colours - so many traps to avoid too.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @TransplantedSoul: Thanks, TransplantedSoul! I think so, too! So glad you enjoyed this article. :)

    • TransplantedSoul profile image

      TransplantedSoul 3 years ago

      The link between colour and emotion is fascinating!

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @Ruthi: Thanks for sharing your feelings about red, Ruthi! I'm fascinated by the strength of people's reactions to the color red, whether positive or negative. So interesting that a color has the power to affect human emotions involuntarily and often subliminally, and be imbued with different meanings for different people! :)

    • profile image

      Ruthi 3 years ago

      Other than the fact that I am (or once was, when younger) a ravishing redhead, red is not one of my favorite colors. I do, however, love deep burgundy shades of red.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @JenniferAkers LM: Thank you for your lovely compliment, Jennifer! I really appreciate it.

    • JenniferAkers LM profile image

      JenniferAkers LM 3 years ago

      What a thorough lens on the symbolism of the color red! I enjoy some red in fashion: for example, blouse, lipstick and nail polish, shoes, purse. I am attracted to its energy and power. Thank you for sharing all the insights into the color.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @Scarlettohairy: Scarlett - Actually, I'm mostly a blue person, too! But I do like a bit of red now and then for its powerful emotional resonance. For example, I have a red nightgown and peignoir that is my husband's favorite! ;)

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 3 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I like some red but I'm more of a blue person.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @SteveKaye: Steve, I love that idea! What a wonderful way to embrace and make use of the color red's ability to stimulate strong emotion, expression and creativity! Thanks so much for sharing that with me.

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 3 years ago

      I like to write drafts with a fountain pen filled with Burgundy Mist ink. It's a great color that represents being different.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @Socialpro54 LM: Thanks very much for the compliment! :)

    • Socialpro54 LM profile image

      Socialpro54 LM 3 years ago

      nice lens!

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 3 years ago from Massachusetts

      @Nancy Hardin: Thanks for your lovely feedback, Nancy! I really appreciate it. :)

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Red is my favorite color, has been for years, and incidentally, also in my horoscope. Mars (the red planet) is associated closely with Aries. Love this lens, beautiful products, well written.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      @aesta1: Thank you so much for your wonderful compliment! I truly appreciate it. :)

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      You have really described well the products you featured here. They're lovely.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      @john9229: Thanks! Me, too. :)

    • profile image

      john9229 4 years ago

      Very interesting topic. I like red roses, red clothes!

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      @VspaBotanicals: Thank you!

    • VspaBotanicals profile image

      VspaBotanicals 4 years ago

      Such a fascinating lens.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      @anonymous: Sounds like a wonderful idea! I'll bet those little pops of red everywhere really make a difference. Many thanks for your blessings!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I have a few accents of red in every room. Its just a red glass candle holder in the bathroom, but it casts a lovely red glow when lite.

    • Margaret Schindel profile image

      Margaret Schindel 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      @bossypants: Thanks very much! I'm delighted that you found this lens so interesting.

    • bossypants profile image

      bossypants 4 years ago from America's Dairyland

      Very interesting research on the color red, its meaning, and the reactions it provokes! I learned a lot from you study of the color red!

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