Rainbow Connection: The Link between Colors and Emotions

If one were to rely only on common sense, it can easily be said that an association exists between colors and emotions. Widely used phrases such as “feeling blue,” “green with envy,” “white as a ghost,” and “seeing red,” are demonstrative of this. However, as common sense may not always be common, one must not be content with insufficiently substantiated information.

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry! [Source]

Thankfully, the literature abounds with researches on this subject. One of which is that of Kaya & Epps (2004), wherein ninety-eight college students (forty-four men and fifty-four women) were asked to indicate their emotional responses to five principal hues (red, yellow, green, blue, and purple), five intermediate hues (yellow-red, green-yellow, blue-green, purple-blue, and red-purple), and three achromatic colors (white, gray, and black).

The colors used were chosen from the Munsell Color System which recognizes that each color has three basic attributes – hue, the attribute by which one color is distinguished from another; value (or brightness), the degree of lightness or darkness of a color in relation to white or black; and chroma (or saturation), the degree of purity or vividness of the hue.

In the experiment, participants were tested individually and asked, “What emotional response do you associate with this color?”, “How does this color make you feel?”, and “Why do you feel this way?” Students were allowed to state only one emotional response per color. After using descriptive statistics to analyze the data, a total of twenty-two emotions were gathered which were coded as “positive,” “negative,” and “no emotion.”

On the whole, 79.6% of the participants expressed positive emotions to the principal hues, 17.8% expressed negative emotions, and 2.6% expressed no emotion. Meanwhile, 64.5% of the participants expressed positive emotions to the intermediate hues, 30.2% expressed negative emotions, and 5.3% expressed no emotion. Finally, 29.2% of the participants expressed positive emotions to the achromatic colors, 68.4% expressed negative emotions, and 2.4% expressed no emotion.

Given these results, the experiment has achieved its primary goal of examining color-emotion associations among college students. Furthermore, it accomplished providing empirical support to the claim that colors are connected with emotions. However, it must be noted that the color-emotion associations mentioned in the experiment may not be easily generalizable to other cultures. Also, it must be observed that the experiment didn’t really do much to shed light on the reason why colors can evoke emotions.

In an attempt to explain color-emotion associations and, subsequently, color preferences, we can take into consideration Palmer & Schloss’ (2010) proposed ecological valence theory. This theory views color preferences as fundamentally adaptive, and predicts that:

“[P]eople should be attracted to colors associated with salient objects that generally elicit positive affective reactions (e.g., blues and cyans with positively valued clear sky and clean water) and repulsed by colors associated with salient objects that generally elicit negative reactions (e.g., browns with negatively valued feces and rotting food).”

In other words, positive affect (and, consequently, preference) will be identified with colors that are associated with objects that are advantageous to survival, reproductive success, and general well-being. On the other hand, negative affect will be identified with colors that are associated with objects that do otherwise.

What, then, are the implications of this?

The understanding of color-emotion associations could benefit the Marketing and Advertising industries. Knowing what affective reactions certain colors could elicit would help them design advertisements and product packaging that would easily appeal to consumers. This could also help teachers as they prepare visual aids for their students, knowing better than to choose colors that would induce boredom. Interior designers could also learn a thing or two from this as they choose the right colors for the rooms they decorate. These are just some of the ways color-emotion associations could be taken advantage of. Because color is everywhere, the possibilities are endless.

Kaya, N., & Epps, H. (2004). Relationship between color and emotion: A study of college students. College Student Journal, 38(3), 396-405.

Palmer, S. E., & Schloss, K. B. (2010). An ecological valence theory of human color preference. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(19), 8877-8882.

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