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Associating emotions with certain colours is a universal human trait

The English language is replete with examples of colours being used to describe ideas and emotions. We see red and feel blue. We go puce with rage and are tickled pink. The jealous are green and the cowardly yellow. We are encouraged not to engage in black and white thinking.

There is ongoing debate about the balance of cultural and evolutionary drivers for these links, which are explored in a new study led by researchers at the University of Lausanne and published in the journal Psychological Science.

A team of 36 academics worldwide led by Domicele Jonauskaite set out to explore whether there were clear parallels between the ways different cultures associate specific emotions with colours. They set up an ongoing study online which asks participants to use a colour wheel to report their associations between twelve colours and twenty emotions. They were also invited to describe the intensity of the emotion they associate with each colour.

The published report is based on data from over 4,500 participants in thirty countries from around the world. Participants spoke 22 different languages.

The report’s key finding is that there does appear to be a hardwired correlation between specific moods and emotions and certain colours based on an analysis of the findings by an algorithm. All cultures tend to associate black with sadness, fear and hatred, red with intense emotions such as anger and love, yellow with happiness and grey with disappointment. The strongest correlations between intense emotions existed for the colours red and black with the lowest for brown.

However, comparisons between global averages and local associations also highlighted some differences in certain countries.

“The cross-modal association of color with emotion is a universal phenomenon”, the report concludes. “Moreover, there is global similarity in how specific emotion concepts are associated with specific color terms, although these universal associations are modulated by geographic and linguistic factors. Across 30 nations and 22 languages on six continents, the pattern of color-emotion associations in each country highly coincided with the global pattern. In other words, participants from different nations shared the relative tendencies to favor certain color-emotion associations (e.g., love and anger with red) over others (e.g., shame with red).

“Potential mechanisms for these universal associations may be found in a lasting shared human history, regularities in human languages and environments, and shared cognitive biases.”

In terms of the report’s findings this means that nations that were closer in terms of their geography and linguistic roots showed a greater degree of correlation. The algorithm used in the study was even able to predict an individual’s location and native tongue by assessing their associations between colour and emotion and their intensity.

For example, Finns, Lithuanians and New Zealanders all displayed strong colour-emotion associations, with people from Azerbaijan and Egypt showing below average correlations.

Interestingly, the researchers suggest that as well as the influence language and culture have on these associations, it’s possible that they also stem from the physical environment. The report says that levels of sunshine might be a predictor of how yellow is associated with joy in a particular part of the world.

The study also highlights some very specific associations in some cultures. Famously, the Chinese associate white with death rather than black as it is in most nations. Similarly, the Greeks also associate death with the colour purple, even though this is seen as a joyous colour on a global scale. The colour red is associated with fear in Nigeria and the colour yellow has no link to happiness in Egypt, in spite of all the sunshine.

Although this study adds an academic sheen to the idea of a link between colour and emotion, it is one that we seem to have an intuitive understanding of. A hardwired awareness of colour psychology is universal, even if the mechanisms are mysterious. As Pablo Picasso said nearly a century ago, “colours, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.”

We are learning about colour all the time and so resources like The Colour Cookbook for Colour in Offices from Sedus is the first specialist book to explore the role of colour in office design. It provides a valuable tool for architects, designers and office occupiers to explore how colour can be used in offices to define spaces, set moods and express identities.

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