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Revealing the psychology of colour to be a rainbow rollercoaster of emotion © Getty Images

Revealing the psychology of colour to be a rainbow rollercoaster of emotion

Published: 19th September, 2020 at 14:00
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Red might be the universal colour of love, but psychologists have find cultural differences in the emotions we associate with the colour spectrum.

Some colours are attached to a particular feeling or emotion, no matter your place in the world, a study that spanned six continents reveals.


Red was strongly associated with love and anger, while yellow was linked with joy, black and grey with sadness, and white with relief.

The international study was led by Domicele Jonauskaite and Prof Christine Mohr from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. The team included researchers from 30 countries.

Researchers asked 4,598 participants from 30 nations to fill in a colour-emotion association survey. The survey gave participants a list of 12 different colours, and asked that they identify any emotions that they felt were associated with each colour. They also ranked the intensity of the emotion.

Read more about emotions:

"No similar study of this scope has ever been carried out," said one of the researchers, Dr Daniel Oberfeld-Twistel from Mainz University. "It allowed us to obtain a comprehensive overview and establish that colour-emotion associations are surprisingly similar around the world."

The study revealed a significant, global consensus, said Oberfeld-Twistel. "For example, throughout the world the colour of red is the only colour that is strongly associated with both a positive feeling – love – and a negative feeling – anger."

The reason for some associations might be evolutionary, related to particularly emotional situations, such as a red face in anger. However, the team also found differences across nations.

While black was universally associated with sadness, participants from China also linked the feeling with white, and Greeks associated it with purple.

"This may be because in China white clothing is worn at funerals and the colour dark purple is used in the Greek Orthodox Church during periods of mourning," said Oberfeld-Twistel.

Like the universal understanding of some facial expressions, or of the emotions evoked by certain songs or music no matter the language, the researchers say that most colour-emotion associations are shared by all.


“Thus, next time you ‘feel blue’ or ‘see red’,” wrote researchers, “know the world is with you.”

Reader Q&A: Are there chemical formulae for emotions like love, hate, anger, joy and jealousy?

Asked by: Kevin McGrath, London

No. Although chemicals play an important part in mediating our emotional response, the interaction of various hormones with our current state of mind and memories is much too complicated to be captured in a simple formula.

If you inject someone with adrenalin, they may feel the physiological sensation of anxiety, but whether this translates to the emotion of fear, anger or sexual arousal will depend on the circumstances.

Read more:


Amy BarrettEditorial Assistant, BBC Science Focus

Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.


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