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How the Colors You See Determine What You Feel

A new study confirms that certain hues trigger similar emotions across the globe

Eye With Rainbow Colors

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En español | Close your eyes and think of the color red. What feelings come to mind? If you said love or fury, you're not alone.

According to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, people around the world associate certain colors with the same emotions. Researchers from various institutions, including the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany and the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, surveyed 4,598 people from 30 countries across six continents who were asked to assign up to 20 different emotions to 12 different colors. They found that some reactions are universal: Red, for example, is linked to both love and anger around the globe.

The field of color psychology includes plenty of speculation, but there are some widely accepted color-emotion associations that have long been embraced by everyone from advertisers to decorators (including red's link to passion) to elicit positive feelings. Author and color consultant Leatrice Eiseman says that some of those associations appear to be at least partly culturally dependent.

Fun fact

Most people are capable of seeing approximately 1 million colors thanks to the light-sensitive cone cells in our eyes, meaning the reaction you have to a pastel lavender tone could be quite different from the feelings evoked by a deep eggplant purple.

White, for instance, tends to be associated with relief and purity in many Western countries (hence the white wedding dress). But in some parts of Asia white clothing is worn during mourning — which is why study participants in China were more likely to associate it with sadness as well as relief.

Other colors’ more universal emotional associations may be due to the influence of the natural world that surrounds us, says Eiseman, who is the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute and head of the Eiseman Center for Color Information and Training.

She surmises that we begin to form positive feelings about the colors found in nature, like yellow sunlight or a clear blue sky, at a young age.

Wondering how your reactions to popular hues measure up? Here's what Eiseman says about these common hues and the feelings they inspire.

Red

There's a reason people are drawn to a bright red teapot or an eye-catching red dress, Eiseman says. As what she calls nature's “most prevalent fatal color” (think about the color of an open flame or certain poisonous creatures), red tones are linked to pain, violence and danger — but, by extension, to love and excitement as well.


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Yellow

Bright yellow, which stimulates us like sunlight, is associated with happiness and joy -— sunny, cheerful emotions, Eiseman says. It's often used in children's toys. Some designers warn against using bright yellow in the bedroom because of its lively effect, potentially hampering sleep.

Blue

Blue is a favored color for corporate logos of all types, from airlines to tech and pharmaceutical companies. That makes sense, Eiseman says, considering that most people associate it with credibility, dependability and a sense of assurance — a reaction that may in part be shaped by our earliest recognition of the blue sky's constant presence. It's also associated with freshness and serenity.

Green

We perceive shades of green more easily than any other color because of the way light reaches our eyes — and as the predominant color of foliage and vegetation, green both calms us and lifts our spirits because of its association with nature, Eiseman says. In fact, she says there's a growing movement to incorporate green tones in settings like hospitals and assisted living facilities to help bring some of green's benefits in from the great outdoors. Many people choose green for their home offices as well.

Brown

Brown inspired the fewest common emotions globally in the recent study. In the United States, Eiseman says, views on brown made a “complete switch” in the 1990s. Once associated primarily with dirt or dirtiness, brown is now a color people say is rich and delicious — like the color of chocolate or coffee.

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