Do colours affect our emotions?

    Associate Professor Heather Winskel writes from Singapore. "My very considerate dentist has purposefully painted his surgery in a calming light blue. I haven’t had the heart to tell him that it doesn’t work.  On a more serious note, however, research has shown that the colour red has robust associations with threat, danger and anger. This has been explained in terms of biological survival and avoidance behaviours such as avoiding dangerous or poisonous animals, injury as blood is red, and angry red colouration of human faces. Based on this biological account, the red colour-emotion association can be considered to be evolutionarily ingrained and thus, common or universal.  An often-overlooked aspect of colour-emotion research is the contribution of environmental and socio-cultural factors in shaping colour-emotion associations.

    In Chinese culture, the colour red is associated with positive connotations of happiness and joy related to the use of red in festivals and celebrations.  Ethnohistorical evidence postulates that this association likely emerged from the Chinese sanctification of red (Shao, 2018). In ancient China, important architectures and infant clothes were red for divine protection (Stuart, 2016). Red’s numinous qualities continue today in Chinese celebrations including birthdays (e.g., red-dyed eggs), weddings (e.g., motifs of “囍”, transliterated as “double-joy”) and Lunar New Year (e.g., red apparel and decorations) (Qiang, 2011). More significantly, red envelopes containing monetary blessings are commonly gifted in celebrations such as Lunar New Year but also during other celebrations (birthdays, weddings or happy occasions) (Xu, 2021). Furthermore, red colour is often used in Chinese linguistic expressions that are positive in nature, for example, individuals who have good luck are described as “红运高照” (red fortune high shine) and successful businesses can be described as “门红” (open door red) (Bai, 2004). In contrast to most nations, China displays rising stock prices in red and declines in green (Zhang & Han, 2014).

    We investigated the happy/joy associations with the colour red in Chinese in comparison to non-Chinese participants in Singapore. We used an experimental categorisation task, where emotion words were categorized into one of two semantic categories of anger-related and happy-related written in red- and yellow-coloured fonts. Participants do this as fast and accurately as they can by pressing two keys on the keyboard. As the colour red in Chinese has positive happy/joy connotations due to cultural traditions and practices, we predicted that the font colour red would facilitate categorization of happy/joy related words as well as anger-associated words in the Chinese participants but not the non-Chinese participants. This prediction was not supported as both the Singaporean Chinese and non-Chinese showed significant facilitation effects for categorizing anger-related words but not happy-related words when presented in a red coloured font. This pattern of results was similar to a study conducted in Australia with non-Chinese participants (Winskel et al., 2021). 

    In a follow-up study, we compared Singaporean Chinese with Chinese living in China. It was thought that the Chinese living in China might be less affected by globalization and retain greater affiliation to Chinese cultural traditions than Singaporean Chinese. This time, we did find a facilitation effect of the font colour red with happy-related words as well as the anger-related words in both groups of Chinese participants. These results indicate a cultural priming effect of the Chinese language. Thus, the Chinese language appears to be modulating this culture-specific tendency. This highlights the close relationship that exists between language and culture.

    So finally, responding to the initial question posed Do colours affect our emotions? Yes, there do appear to be common colour-emotion tendences but also culture-specific ones that are shaped by our culture and environment."

    Image courtesy of H Winskel, Singapore

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