Seeing Red Or Feeling Blue? People Around The World Make Similar Associations Between Colours And Emotions

By Emma Young

As an English-speaker, I might “see red” with anger, go “green” with envy or, on a bad day, “feel blue”. To me, it seems natural to associate certain colours with particular emotions — but is the same true for people around the world? And if so, do we all make the same emotion/colour matchings? These questions have been investigated in a new study, published in Psychological Science, which has produced some fascinating results.

An international team of 36 researchers, led by Domicele Jonauskaite at the University of Lausanne, analysed data gathered through the ongoing online International Colour-Emotion Association survey. A total of 4,598 adults from 30 different nations on six continents used an emotion “wheel” to report their perceptions of associations between 12 different colour terms and the 20 discrete emotions marked in “spokes” on that wheel. They could match each colour term to as many emotions as they liked, or to none, and also indicate the intensity of each emotion that they associated with a colour.

The team found that all of the nationalities in the study did indeed match colours to emotions. “The cross-modal association of colour with emotion is a universal phenomenon,” they conclude. What’s more, there were clear global similarities across the matches. Participants tended to link black with sadness, fear and/or hate; red with love and/or anger; pink with love, joy and/or pleasure; grey with sadness and/or disappointment; yellow with joy; orange with amusement; and white with relief. Across all countries, black and red were the colours most likely to be associated with emotions of any kind, while brown was the least likely. When a colour was matched to a particular emotion, the emotional intensity ratings from the various nationalities were similar.

However, some intriguing differences between nations also emerged. For example, Nigerians associated red with fear as well as love and anger; Chinese people associated white with sadness as well as relief; unlike other nationalities, Egyptians did not associate joy and other positive emotions with yellow; and Greeks associated purple with sadness, whereas other nationalities tended to associate purple with positive emotions.

So what explains the commonalities in responses, and also the differences?

Some apparently universal emotion-colour links might stem from common physiological responses to different prompts. For example, a threat that we are determined to counter is associated with both a rush of blood to the face and with feelings of anger. This could, then, explain the global tendency to match red and anger.

In some cases, the reasons for discrepancies are pretty clear, too. While English people, for example, traditionally wear black to funerals, white is usually worn in China, and, the researchers note, Greek people occasionally wear darker shades of purple while in mourning.

The team also found that the closer one nation was to another, either geographically or in terms of linguistic similarity, the more similar their colour-emotion matches were likely to be. Cultural and/or linguistic differences in how colour terms are understood or used across nations could then account for the variations in matches seen between countries, the team writes.

However, differences in physical environments could have an influence too. For example, the team’s own recent work on people from 55 nations revealed that exposure to sunshine affects the degree to which yellow is matched with joy — specifically, yellow was perceived as being more joyful in colder and rainier countries.

A few other interesting findings came out of the team’s new analyses. Of the nationalities included in the study, people from Finland, Lithuania and New Zealand made the most colour-emotion term matches, while people from Azerbaijan and Egypt made the fewest. (Why? The team don’t know). Also, men and women made the same associations.

There are a few limitations with the study, however. One obvious one is that the participants were all computer-literate. Perhaps they had been exposed via the internet to colour-emotion matches common in other countries and languages, and this could have helped to drive global similarities between the responses.

Still, as the team concludes: “Given our current knowledge, we suggest that colour-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, know that the world is with you.”

Universal Patterns in Color-Emotion Associations Are Further Shaped by Linguistic and Geographic Proximity

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest