Emotional Associations of Color by Doug Ciofani

Color is an overwhelming component of the human experience.
Although we may not always realize it, color saturates our everyday world in almost every conceivable way. From natureís most majestic scenery to the man-made world of architecture and art, colorís presence is evident in everything we perceive. Thus, it unavoidably affects our lives and our consciousness.

Colors play many different roles in our world. In art they can express emotion or beauty, in literature they can portray mood or atmosphere, and in ourselves they play a role bigger than most of us would imagine. Granted, no one would deny the fact that colors are an integral part of the human experience; most people are aware of their personal color preference or even associations. People can be very color conscious when it comes to "expressing themselves" either in fashion, personal belongings, or art. But the question remains, what is it about color that affects us so much, and how do we form our relationship with color? Is color association based on past experiences? Does color really have a neurological affect on us? Or is it all in our head? Research done by psychologists and other scientists would suggest that it is a little of all three.

It has been well-known by psychologists for some time that certain colors are indeed associated with certain emotions. Like most presumably learned associations, childhood is the time period when these relationships are made. Thus, the data of childhood color association is imperative in understanding how we relate to color. Overall, children have a tendency to relate color, in general, to positive emotions. Children prefer lighter colors to darker colors, and also associate lighter colors with positive emotions.

The association of color and emotions is highest in children under 7, and then gradually tapers off into adulthood. However, there is still a significant correlation in adulthood. Among children however, favorite colors include red and yellow, and thus are associated with emotions like happiness. Also, childrenís preferences are affected by the brightness of the color, with brighter colors (even of the same hue) being associated more strongly with positive emotions. Children are not apt however to associate colors with certain emotions, such as relating green to envy or red to anger.

Adults and older children however are. Color associations become much more complex in adults even though the relationships are not as strong as in children. One example of this aspect of color relationships among adults is the factor of saturation. Colors of high saturation are perceived as being more exciting and stronger than colors of low saturation, thus yellow (which is in the least-saturated region of the spectrum) is perceived much differently in adults than in children. Adults perceive yellow as dull and unexciting, whereas children perceive it similarly to red, which both adults and children associate with excitement, passion or action. This exemplifies the more complex nature of color association in adults.

Specifically, almost all colors are undeniably associated with certain characteristics or emotions. In order of the spectrum, the first one to consider is red, probably the most potent and emotional color. Red generally is associated with excitement, either positive (passion, strength) or negative (rage, aggressiveness). Physiologically, the eye has to adjust to focus redís wavelength as its focal point resides behind the retina. Thus, red objects overrule other hues and create an illusion of appearing closer than it really is.


Orange, while similar to red, has almost no symbolic or emotional association. It is generally perceived as being exciting and stimulating though, however much more mellow than red. Yellow, while often considered dull because of its lightness, is the "happiest" color. Yellow usually represents enlightenment or expansion. The next color in the spectrum, green, is a dichotomy of emotion. In some instances it evokes a relaxing, tranquil feeling, however just as often it may be associated with guilt or envy. Physiologically it is the most restful as the focal point lands exactly on the retina.

In both adults and children, blue is the most preferred color. Also representing a calmness or tranquility, it is the antithesis of red. Physiologically is has been shown to actually decrease a personís pulse rate while red has been shown to be able to increase it. Blue is associated with nobility and honor. Violet is an extension of blue. Also subduing, violet can be associated with dignity or exclusiveness, but also loneliness or mournfulness.

These examples show well the associations humans make with colors and their environment, however looking cross-culturally we can learn even more about the associations made. Red and black are associated with anger in all cultures studied, from Native Americans to Poles. This would suggest a biological basis for certain color-emotion associations. However, symbolically these colors differ, as red can symbolize love and fertility, and black is often worn by priests and judges. This type of symbolic variation supports a more learned association hypothesis.

Further support of the theory that color associations are rooted in cultural learning is the fact that green is associated with envy only in America. In Germany, Italy, Japan, and other countries, yellow is associated with envy as well as jealousy. 17th and 18th Century literature is believed to be the basis for this association, as plays and novels often referred to the face of jealousy being yellow.

Purple has quite a variance of associations cross-culturally. In America, as stated, it is associated with dignity and power. Navajos on the other hand associate it with happiness, while the Japanese connect it with sin and fear. Furthermore, Poles associate it with anger, envy and jealousy.

In addition to emotional responses, colors seem to have significant effects on various physical perceptions of everyday life. Colors can affect our perception of time, weight and space, temperature, and even noise. Research has shown that in environments surrounded by cool colors, time is underestimated, objects appear shorter, and air feels cooler. The reverse is true in controlled environments made up of warm colors. This information combined with the known emotional associations can prove useful in selecting color schemes for schools, offices, and hospitals.

Although more research needs to be done on color association, it is clear from the available information that colors help shape our daily lives. Colors have both a cultural and biological effect on us and helps us perceive the world in greater detail. Furthermore, colors are an integral part of who we are and how we view the world.


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Mahnke, Frank. H, and Rudolf H. Mahnke. 1993. Color and Light in Man-Made Environments. New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Terwogt, Mark Meerum, and Jan B. Hoeksma. 1995. Colors and emotions: preferences and combinations. The Journal of General Psychology. 122 5-28.