Dr. Nafissa Ismail, Associate Professor of psychology at the uOttawa’s Faculty of Social Sciences, explains why we associate some colors with specific emotions.
Brain or culture
Is that an association made in our brain or is it learned through our culture? The association between colors and emotions occurs in our brain. While some color preferences do come from culture, others are learned through experiences. As we encounter situations in our daily life, our memory is shaped by some of these experiences and our brain associates emotions to them. Because colors are present in our environment, an emotion-color association takes place. There is a myriad of colors associated with emotions which depends on the culture we live in. For example, the color orange is often associated with Halloween, because when we think of orange, we think of pumpkins and therefore, we think of Halloween. Depending on whether we like Halloween or not, an emotion will be elicited and that is how we get the association between color and emotion.
Before the cultural part of colors associated with emotions, how much it is natural and when does it begin?
We are naturally born with this instinct to identify what is dangerous, and safe. Naturally, individuals are attracted to what is safe and avoid danger. This thought process prompts emotions. For example, babies are attracted to bright colors because they like them a lot and can see them, whereas dull colors are more difficult to see for infants as they have low visual acuity.
Our society also enforces certain color preferences by presenting baby girls with pink, and baby boys with blue, for example, and such preferences eventually change as the individual ages and experiences situation. Associations made between colors and emotions vary not only across the lifespan but also from one individual to another. For some, red might represent anger, fire, danger, yet someone else might associate red with flowers, roses, hearts, and so it's very different from one individual to another and there's huge differences between cultures as well.
Professor Nafissa Ismail participated in the CBC's Quirks & Quarks TV show live from the Canada Science and Technology Museum to answer that specific question.