Pink is beautiful but you laugh in yellow and birthdays are blue: The colors of emotion

There is a lot more to color than most people realize. For example, color has been instrumental in experimental tests of the long-standing controversy about whether one’s language determines one’s mode of thinking. Do we all perceive colors in the same way, regardless of whether we have different words for, say, blue and green or lump them together under the single term luhlaza, as in Zulu? (The answer is complicated.)

Color is also automatically activated in response to certain stimuli—for example saying words like “frog” can lead us to look for anything green. Or, as we noted in an earlier post, if you are looking for the word “canary”, you are slower to find it in a visual display if other distracting words are printed in yellow rather than in purple. It is as if you expect anything yellow to be a canary because when one attends to an object, its typical color is automatically brought to mind.

But it is not just objects that have a typical color: even emotions are known to be associated with a predominant color. For example, people often associate bright colors (e.g., white, pink) with positive emotions (e.g., happy, relaxed) and dark colors (e.g., black, brown) with negative emotions (anxious, sad). Those associations can be elicited by asking subjects to consider an emotion as though it were an object: In one recent doctoral dissertation at the University of Sydney, participants were asked “If ‘anger’ was an object or something tangible, palpable that you can hold in your hands, how would you describe it or what would it look like?”

Participants quite happily produced descriptions of the object ‘anger’, including its predominant color—namely red, as you probably already guessed. You probably also guessed that the color of sadness is blue.

But what might be the color of cancer? Or the color of a disaster? A recent article by researchers Sutton and Altarriba published in the Psychonomic Society’s journalBehavior Research Methods provides an inventory of the colors of a large number of words that either describe emotions (such as “angry” or “jealous”) or have strong emotional connotations (such as “cancer” or “disaster”).

Participants were presented with a list of words and had to generate the first color that came to mind with each of the words. Although there was some variety in the preferred response across participants, there was also remarkable uniformity: For example, “angry” was considered red by 79% of participants, and black by a further 14%. Thus, fewer than 10% of responses were split across all the remaining colors, with only 1% of responses nominating “orange” or “yellow.” (There is one in every sample, isn’t there?)

At the other end of the spectrum, “guilty” elicited quite a diversity of responses, with red, green, black, gray, and blue being nominated more than 10% of the time. The table below shows some words and their presumed colors (listing the top 3 responses and the proportion of participants who reported them):

Friend Yellow (27%) Blue (24%) Pink (14%)
Gift Blue (29%) Red (22%) Green (13%)
Grin White (27%) Yellow (21%) Red (18%)
Kiss Red (63%) Pink (26%) Blue (5%)
Miracle White (48%) Blue (18%) Yellow (9%)
Triumph Yellow (30%) Gold (27%) Red (16%)
Wish White (33%) Blue (23%) Yellow (15%)

The article by Sutton and Altarriba provides researchers with a normed inventory of the colors associated with emotional and emotion-laden words. This offers researchers multiple opportunities for further study, for example along the lines of a recent study that examined the way in which color can influence people’s cognition and behavior. In that study by Young and colleagues, participants were shown facial expressions for categorization (e.g., “is this face happy or angry”?). Before the face was flashed for classification, participants viewed a background on the screen that was either red, green, blue, or gray. It was found that the red background facilitated the identification of angry faces. With the new inventory provided by Sutton and Altarriba it may be possible to facilitate the identification of other emotions in faces by presenting the associated color prior to the face stimulus.

In addition, knowing how color is associated to particular emotions might assist in improving the accuracy of memory recall for emotional events. In earlier work by one of the present authors, Altarriba and Santiago-Rivera noted that participants often recalled events from their childhood that were negative or positive in nature. It is possible that when people have difficulty recollecting particular memories, having them first consider or view a particular color ahead of time might trigger the emotional response associated with an early memory and increase the accuracy of recalling a given event. The connection between emotion, color, and memory therefore is an issue worthy of further exploration as it may assist in the reconstruction of past memories.

A final word of caution is in order: The norms presented by Sutton and Altarriba were gathered with American participants who spoke only English. Quite different results may be obtained in other countries: For example, it is known that whereas Americans are green with envy, Germans think of yellow as the color of envy, and people in Poland resort to purple when they feel envious. Clearly, while emotions may be universal, their color is not. So if you don’t like your toothache being white, maybe you can find a dentist with a non-English linguistic background.

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