The research mentioned in this article focuses on the widely assumed relationship between colour and emotion or affect more widely (affect includes emotions like love and anger, as well as mood states like feeling low, sentiments, preferences, etc.). In the relevant experiments, participants:
I. Link colour with emotion using colour patches as well as colour terms,
II. Indicate colour when being in particular moods,
III. Complete a so-called “chromotherapy”,
IV. Consider that colour in art conveys affective meaning.
Such studies help us understand the importance of colour on affect, but also the differential contribution of seeing or mentally representing a colour when considering their link with affect.
link between color and emotion
Based on our study goal, that is testing whether there is “really” a link between colour and emotion, we have to step back a bit. First, the link between colour and emotion entails the assumption that there is a well-known established fact: colours have the power of influencing everyone and their moods in the same way.
Over the years, we could realize that the popular media is eager to endorse such “facts” and make far-reaching claims. We repeatedly “learn” that a blue environment is relaxing. In scientific communications, we do not have the evidence to endorse many of such widely held claims. The existence of widely held “facts” does not automatically create the respective scientific data and evidence but provides examples of widespread beliefs. We started to be eager to test such wide-spread beliefs, namely whether indeed colour and emotion are associated in a systematic way. Furthermore, we are interested not only in a single population but in individuals from as many countries as we are able to test. Also, one has to ask whether associating a colour with a given emotion, let’s say red with love, would indeed make you feel love. Linking yellow with joy, would that make you feel joyful? Is it necessary to see the colour in your immediate environment, or would it be sufficient to think about the colour or imagine it?
As of now, our own data allows us to make several evidence-based conclusions:
When looking at the way people from 30 countries associate colour terms with emotion concepts, we observe a high similarity in the associations between colours and emotions (68% – 94%). Yet, the similarity is not at 100% pointing to an important range of individual and crosscultural differences. The higher similarity was observed between countries that were neighbours or shared language
When looking at the way people associate colours with different mood states, we observe systematic choices for sadness (dark colours), joy (yellow together with other warm bright colours), and fear (dark colours), while relaxation was
associated with a multitude of different colours (muted yellow, green, blue, or orange). The mood was induced in the laboratory through music. Please note that this study would not prove the reverse, that painting or illuminating rooms in these colours would induce the respective mood states, whether in the short-term or long-term.
When looking at the way people respond to a commercially available chromotherapy intervention, we found that the intervention worked in reducing stress and anxiety, but people did not need to see the colours. More precisely, one group of participants saw the colour disks that arrived with the intervention, and the other group of participants looked at a white board. The intervention effect was the same in both conditions. We had to conclude that seeing colour was not a crucial factor for the efficiency of this colour-based intervention
living spaces, colors and psychology
This headline puts the finger right at the heart of why we feel that we have to test widely held beliefs on the relationship between colour and emotion. We strongly feel about the necessity to answer such questions. But where to start, and how to do it? This topic, in fact, is very general and again assumes a universal and general link between colour and how it affects us psychologically. With our current studies (cross-cultural study on colour – emotion associations using colour terms and patches), we firstly aim to understand how universal and general colour – emotion associations are. Then, we can select particular colours and test whether exposure to these colours affect people’s cognitive abilities (e.g. memory, concentration) and well-being (e.g. stress, mood). Indeed, as for causality that particular colours in particular rooms “cause” the desired effect, we are not aware that evidence-based studies have been published in a language we master.
We want to give some examples again. Let’s take the yellow – joy relationship. We find this relationship in over 50 countries. In Switzerland, this relationship was strong whether we showed participants yellow as a term or a patch. Now, we can ask whether this abstract, conceptual relationship will actually manifest in real life? Would we become more joyful if we would spend time in a yellow room? And if so, which luminance should we select, which saturation? What would the role of illumination be? Can we assume that there are shared mechanisms of colour – emotion relationships that are beneficial in particular environments such as schools and hospitals? We are aware that strong opinions circulate in the public domain, but we are also aware that we lack systematic studies that have shown that there is substantial support for these strong opinions.
Obviously, working on such questions with designers, architects, and artists would be a highly desirable enterprise. We are dedicated to shedding light on as many widely circulating myths as possible. With this dedication in mind, we are also very open to comments, other opinions, and possible collaborations.