Social psychology

Colors and the emotions people associate them with are similar around the world

colors and emotions

Around the world, people associate colors with emotions. Now a massive new study shows that colors and the emotions that people link them to are similar across the globe.

As the authors write, “Many of us ‘see red,’ ‘feel blue,’ or ‘turn green with envy.’ Are such color-emotion associations fundamental to our shared cognitive architecture, or are they cultural creations learned through our languages and traditions?” 

To find out, they surveyed about 4,600 people from 30 countries across six continents.

“No similar study of this scope has ever been carried out,” said Dr. Daniel Oberfeld-Twistel, member of the participating team at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). “It allowed us to obtain a comprehensive overview and establish that color-emotion associations are surprisingly similar around the world,” he said.

Red has good and bad connotations, and brown is bland

The study, published earlier this week in the journal Psychological Science, asked participants to assign up to 20 emotions to twelve different colors. The survey also asked them to specify how intensely they associate a certain color with a certain emotion.

The researchers found a significant global consensus. For example, red is the only color that people strongly associate with both a positive feeling (love) and a negative one (anger).

And around the world, the color that triggers the least emotions is brown.

Sadness: white or purple?

Regional differences also emerged. The color white, for example, is much more closely associated with sadness in China than it is in other countries. This also applies to the color 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,” said Oberfeld-Twistel.

In addition to such cultural idiosyncrasies, the local climate may also play a role. Previous studies have found that yellow tends to be more closely associated with joy in countries that see less sunshine, while the association is weaker in areas that have more sunshine. “Yellow is more joyful in colder and rainier countries,” as the authors put it.

Many fundamental questions about the mechanisms behind these color-emotion associations have yet to be clarified. But by using a self-learning AI system developed by Oberfeld-Twistel, scientists have already discovered that the similarities are greater when nations are linguistically or geographically close.

“The world is with you”

“Given our current knowledge,” the authors conclude, “we suggest that color-emotion associations represent a human psychological universal that likely contributes to shared communication and comprehension.”

“Thus, the next time you feel blue or see red,” they write, “know that the world is with you.”


Study: Universal patterns in color-emotion associations are further shaped by linguistic and geographic proximity
Authors: D. Jonauskaite et al.
Published in: Psychological Science
Publication date: September 8, 2020
DOI: 10.1177/0956797620948810
Photo: by Senjuti Kundu via Unsplash

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