Social psychology

The psychology of color: new global study finds we all link colors and emotions in similar ways

The psychology of color turns out to be pretty similar around the world. A massive new study has found 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, they wonder, fundamental to our shared cognitive architecture? Or are they cultural creations that we learn through our languages and traditions? 

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

Co-author Daniel Oberfeld-Twistel of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz said this study is the largest of its kind to date. “It allowed us to obtain a comprehensive overview and establish that color-emotion associations are surprisingly similar around the world,” he said.

The psychology of color has the most to say about red

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. People in China, for example, more closely associate the color white with sadness than people 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 countries with less sunshine more frequently associate yellow with joy. 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.”


Other recent psych news:

  • Do people prefer academic article titles with colons and question marks? Short answer: yes.
  • A distinct psychological profile called the “frontier mentality” is still very prevalent in the western United States, a new study finds.
  • An analysis of the most popular rap songs of the past 20 years finds that the amount of rap about depression has more than doubled.
  • Curiously, even though more and more people are going to college, the average vocabulary of an American has not increased since the 1970s.
  • Skipping a grade in elementary school turns out to be no problem for kids’ mental health, despite what many educators still believe.

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 Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

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