Red, White and Blue: How We React to the Flag’s Colors
By Author Name
Jul 1, 2019
Updated Oct 25, 2023
5 min read
Let’s talk about color — and brace yourself — it isn’t real. When we see color, it’s our brain’s way of perceiving different wavelengths of light. Our vision detects three primary colors — red, green and blue — thanks to three unique photoreceptors. (Note: People can also be born without the red photoreceptor or have an extra photoreceptor to distinguish somewhere between red and green colors.) But as we learned in elementary school, all the colors we see are mixes or variations from the three primary colors. Now this is where it gets weird: The common bluebottle butterfly has 15 photoreceptors, meaning they may see colors we never knew existed!
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look at the three colors that make up our country’s flag.
When you think of red, you might picture a bullfighter with a bright red cape, egging on a bull. Or maybe you imagine the tail lights of a hotrod speeding down the highway at night. Whatever your association, it probably has something to do with excitement or intensity. Research has shown that red is associated with an increased heart rate and blood pressure, suggesting that we interpret this specific color as an indication of something adrenaline-worthy.
Another study used brain imaging to see how monkeys’ brains react to various colors. Specific regions of brain cells reacted to each hue distinctly, and neurons in the visual areas of the brain were most sensitive to red than any other color. Clearly red is a visceral color used to communicate something powerful.
White is technically not a color because it doesn’t have a certain wavelength like red or blue. It actually contains all wavelengths of visible light, so it’s kind of a visual hodgepodge of everything. Anyways, we tend to associate it with neutrality, cleanliness and purity. Think of doctors’ coats, doves and blank canvases — these are all white and inspire thoughts of sterility, peace and new beginnings. Regardless of the context in which it’s seen, white is neutral in that we can prescribe a positive or at least neutral association with it.
Just by thinking of blue, don’t you feel sort of calm, cool and collected? You’re not alone. In 2009 the city of Tokyo had blue lights installed in railway platforms to reduce the number of suicides — and it worked. The rate of suicides dropped by a whopping 74% wherever the blue lights were installed, so Britain decided to try the same thing. Although it’s important to note that no hard scientific evidence has come forth to prove that blue light increases calmness and improves mood, it’s something that’s clearly worth further research.
Although our brains seem to be hardwired to some degree when reacting to different colors, a large part of it has to do with our past. Things like personal experience, upbringing, fond memories and other associations drastically affect the way we think about color. That’s why advertisers and marketers spend so much time testing how focus groups will react to different brands. Swapping out a single brand color can entirely change a person’s personal opinion of that company. Think about it — would you have a different view on your favorite household names if their logo was bright orange or lime green? Maybe, but maybe not.
There’s still a lot to be learned about how red, white, blue and all the other colors affect our emotions. Some researchers even believe colors can drastically affect our creativity, learning and even quality of sleep. So maybe one day we’ll have a whole new appreciation for our flag’s three fateful colors. Until then — happy Independence Day!