Red Republicans, Blue Democrats: Political Identity and the Psychology of Colors
By Heath Shive
Part of the blessing of thinking is the curse of overthinking.
Children see pretty colors. Adults…overthink this.
We can see green in the leaves and grass. But green is symbolic too – of St Patrick’s Day, Irish Catholic politics, and of Islamic culture.
Orange can remind us of citrus fruit…or Irish Protestant politics, Halloween, and the Orange Revolution.
Somewhere along the way, Americans associated Republicans and Democrats with “red” states and “blue” states.
This relatively recent color coding has been credited to the broadcast networks' election coverage during the 1980s, but was locked in during the 2000 Presidential election campaign.
Is it that simple?
Let's overthink this.
To the science of primary colors and political identity!
Embodied cognition is a concept in psychology which asserts that not only do humans ascribe a metaphor or belief to a sensation, but sensations imprint feelings onto the human mind.
To influence a person’s sensory input is to influence their mental thinking.
In 2005, psychologist Danny Hayes studied "trait ownership" in politics and discovered that people generally ascribe “hard” qualities to Republicans and “soft” qualities to Democrats.
Do political views have a "hardness" or "softness"? And does the opposite happen, does hardness connect to a political idea?
Three psychologists – Michael Slepian, Nicholas Rule, and Nalini Abady – published a paper in 2012 that revealed the power of hard and soft sensations on thinking. In one experiment, they had the participants squeeze either a soft ball or hard ball. While squeezing the balls, the participants had to look at four male and four female faces and guess each face’s political orientation.
Those who squeezed a soft ball were more likely to guess Democrat; those who squeezed a hard ball were more likely to guess Republican.
But how does color come into play?
Red State, Blue State
In a previous blog ("Devil in a Red Dress"), I wrote about the psychological connections between the color red and the human mind.
Waitresses wearing red get tipped more. The color red can make women more attractive to men, and vice versa.
But this blog is about politics, not sex appeal.
Two researchers Anthony Little and Russell Hill experimented to see if the color red conveyed dominance even in inanimate objects. People were shown blue circles and red circles. Then they were asked which circle seemed more dominant.
The participants judged the red circle more dominant.
Circles are not famous for dominance. And no state looks red or blue from outer space. But still, we associate certain colors with certain feelings, and vice versa.
So let’s combine the thoughts of the above studies. Republicans are perceived to have more hard-line political views. Hardness communicates assertion, strength, and power.
People can be forgiven if they naturally associate the color red with Republicans.
What are the stereotypical associations with the color blue? Peace, acceptance, and higher thought. People can be forgiven if they naturally associate blue with Democrats.
The funny thing is that Republicans for most of the 20th century were associated with the color blue!
So what is different now in the psychology of the political landscape?
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D. Hayes (2005). Candidate qualities through a partisan lens: a theory of trait ownership. American Journal of Political Science, 49 (4), 908-23.
A. C. Little and R. A. Hill (2007). Attribution to red suggests special role in dominance signaling. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5 (1-4), 161-68.
M. L. Slepian, N. O. Rule, and N. Ambady (2012). Proprioception and person perception: Politicians and professors. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39 (12), 1621-28.
For more about embodied cognition, see:
Lobel, Thalma. Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence. Atria Books, 2014.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.