The universal language of color emotion association

by Carolyn Zhao | October 5, 2020

A wheel of colors on the spectrum. Art by Allyson Wang (’23)

How would someone describe the experience of walking into a museum room cast with the vivid blue glow of an aquarium? For most, feelings like “calm” or “serene” come to mind. How about the experience of walking by a mural painted with vibrant strokes of red? People associate emotions with color through a psychological phenomenon called color emotion, and it is well-known that color association is linked to the languages people speak. However, a recent finding demonstrates that despite color emotion, people all around the world associate colors with emotions, with many common associations despite geographical differences.

An international team of psychological researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany conducted a study to test the aforementioned phenomenon. The research involved participants from six continents, 30 countries, and 22 different native language sectors. They filled out a questionnaire asking them to assign up to 20 emotions to 12 color terms as well as to specify the intensity of the association. At the conclusion of the survey period, researchers calculated the national averages for the data and compared them with the corresponding worldwide average. “This revealed a significant global consensus,” summarized researcher Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel, who found that red was unique in its association with both the positive feeling of love and the negative feeling of anger, while brown inspired the fewest emotions globally.

However, the scientists did find that there were some national and cultural variances in color perception. For instance, in China, white tended to be strongly associated with sadness, and likewise for purple in Greece. “This may be because in China white clothing is worn at funerals and the color dark purple is used in the Greek Orthodox Church during periods of mourning,” explains Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel. A region’s climate may also influence color perception; the team found that individuals associated yellow with joy. Yet, in countries that saw less sunshine, people associated yellow more strongly with feelings of joy, while the opposite held true in countries that frequently received lots of sunshine.

Research into the reasons behind color-emotion association is still in its infancy, and it is “difficult to say exactly what the causes for global similarities and differences are,” according to Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel. There are many factors to consider, including language, culture, religion, climate, the history of human development, and the human perceptual system, among others. In fact, a machine-learning approach has already found that the greater the geographical or linguistic separation, the greater the differences tend to be with color-emotion association.

This fascinating study and others like it may offer many more insights into the mysterious matter of human cognition. But as important as this research is for science, it is arguably equally important during a time when people are more divided than ever, affirming that humans are indeed more alike than they are different.

Categories: Science

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