Paint, fabrics and environments: psychology of the color white

What do they say about the color white in, say, interior design? And what do Americans say about wearing white after Labor Day? And what do we say about white light, or white bridal gowns, or—we have to ask—white lab coats?

The psychology of color is something that’s been studied from wall paint to clothing design, and for good reason. White, just like every other color, has been elected in many environments for its unique psychological effects.

Color psychology is the study of colors’ effects on our moods and behavior. The field has helped us understand how and why we buy certain items, why we trust certain people, and why we spend more time in certain spaces.

The “why” behind each is where things get complicated. A color’s meaning can impact us for better and worse. What’s more, a color’s effects can be exaggerated when contrasted with other colors.

Have you ever wondered why everything is so, so very white in a medical setting, for instance? Labs and examination rooms regularly maximize the clinical benefits of white. But, why?

Many people identify white as “pure,” while others say it’s “stark” or “cold.” Most of this depends on where (or on what) the color white is found. The color white will generate different effects if it’s painted on a wall versus a ceiling, for example. And it will inspire a different mood if it’s on a shirt versus a necklace. 

Beyond the psychology of color, there’s symbolism, too. Take the white coat, for example. This symbol of science is ubiquitous.

There’s a lot more to say and much more to learn about the color white, especially when it comes to its remarkable representation in medicine and science. Let’s dig in.

General psychology of the color white

In many contexts, white is thought to represent purity and innocence. When we look to the rigor associated with medicine and science, however, a professional in a designer lab coat will be seen instead to represent clarity and cleanliness. 

White is also bright and the most light-reflective color out there, and thus can brighten any space. This is true for paint colors as well as for whole-white garments like a doctor jacket.

When we look at studies around “white coat syndrome” (where patients feel nervous in the presence of any doctor donning a white coat), white can also be described as cold, bland or sterile. Here, we can see how color psychology varies from person to person. And, if we’re honest, for anyone who’s recently been pat down by a doctor’s cold hands, you probably still feel the chill when you think of that white jacket.

That said, sterility is a great thing to associate with a labcoat, no matter the setting! If a doctor or scientist isn’t working with sterile conditions, there’s something very wrong.

What are the physical effects of white?

White quite literally illuminates a space. When a doctor or lab lead walks into a space, the scene positively sparkles.

This effect is not, however, the primary physical benefit professionals took on when the white coat was adopted in the medical community. When this change took place, scientists were already donning white lab jackets, tapping into the power of the color to aid focus and organization. The more medicine turned to science to examine and cure patients, the more doctors chose to leverage a more scientific approach to everything—including this very real physical aid to the focus and organization in their environment.

General symbolism of the color white

Not only does the color white have psychological and physical effects on its environment, it also carries the weight of symbolism. Forget about the “purity” of young brides’ innocence (how antiquated). How about the symbolism of white in academia? In this context, white stands for everything good and right. We use it to represent certainty, insight, and clarity. We associate it with knowledge and learning.

Today, in a far more inspiring way, the color white also symbolizes the inviolable. We’ll even argue that this symbolism is more powerful in science than in any other practice, considering the integrity that scientists and doctors put to the test every day.

If you’re a lab coat professional, people prefer the white coat

A recent study showed that, out of 18 color options (including “no preference”), white ranked fifteenth overall as the “favorite color.” Clearly, in these general terms, respondents saw white as not only sterile, but boring.

When asked to rank colors for clothing, the same survey showed white coming in as the tenth favorite—despite its propensity to stain and visually enlarge things.

Most notably of all, when asked to choose their favorite color for physical environments, white was overwhelmingly the number-one choice. The control and cleanliness that white provides an examination room, for example, was matched only by respondents’ preference for medical and lab professionals to not only wear white, but wear a white lab coat.

The color white as a signature

Whatever the results of the “favorite color” surveys might have been, there have been several personalities who have taken ownership of the color white through the years. These are personalities who have left their mark in everything from literature to fried chicken:

Tom Wolfe, author and journalist, began wearing trademark white suits in 1962 and never quit.

Mark Twain started wearing a full suit made of white linen around 1906, the garb which quickly became his “look.” Most readers today still picture him in white.

Colonel Sanders, not unlike Mark Twain, sported a white suit look after the Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon decreed Sanders as an honorary colonel. Interestingly, the white suit also helped Sanders hide flour stains. He even started bleaching his moustache and goatee to match his white suit and hair.

Doctors and scientists around the world have also donned white, though not always. The story of how the white lab coat came to be is an interesting one, so be sure to take a look.

The psychology, symbolism and even the physical effects of the color white depend on where the color is used, on the person interacting with the color, and even the cultural dynamics involved. Color psychology continues to be studied with all these variables. The fascinating differences between a white ceiling versus a white wall, for example, or a white lab coat and a white necklace generate as many questions as they do answers.

How do you perceive the color white at work? At home? At the doctor’s office? When it comes to a doctor jacket, would you want it any other color than white?

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