This study just discovered a global emotional language

From Ohio to Belgium, or Tokyo to Cairo, colors evoke similar emotions in people no matter where they’re from or what language they speak. That’s the main conclusion drawn from a groundbreaking new study just released by Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany.

The colors we see and perceive all around us are some of life’s most simple pleasures. For example, think back to the first time you watched the sunset over a tapestry of yellow, orange, and red colors. Indeed, colors add so much beauty to our lives, but they also tend to evoke emotions.

Green is associated with success and contentment, red is intrinsically linked to anger and love, blue usually stirs up feelings of sadness or loneliness. The list goes on and on. Now, for the first time, scientists have confirmed that people all over the world generally associate the same colors with similar emotions.

“No similar study of this scope has ever been carried out,” comments study collaborator Dr. Daniel Oberfeld-Twistel in a university release. “It allowed us to obtain a comprehensive overview and establish that color-emotion associations are surprisingly similar around the world.” Domicele Jonauskaite and Professor Christine Mohr from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland were the leading authors of this study.

Researchers surveyed 4,598 people from all over the world (30 nations across six continents) for this project. That survey asked each participant to write down all the emotions (up to 20 for each color) they felt while viewing 12 distinct colors, as well as the intensity of each emotion. National averages were formulated for each country, which was then compared with the worldwide average.

“This revealed a significant global consensus,” Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel explains. “For example, throughout the world the color of red is the only color that is strongly associated with both a positive feeling – love – and a negative feeling – anger.”

Interestingly, the color brown was identified as the least emotional color out there by the experiment. Most participants, across a variety of different countries, felt little to no emotions while looking at the color brown.

While the majority of colors sparked similar emotions, there were of course a few distinct cultural differences noted as well. For instance, while the color white isn’t associated with sadness or grieving in most areas of the world, it is in China. Similarly, dark purple is also associated more with sadness in Greece than in other countries.

“This may be because in China white clothing is worn at funerals and the color dark purple is used in the Greek Orthodox Church during periods of mourning,” Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel says.

Weather patterns and climate also appear to influence some color-emotion perception differences as well. Researchers noted that the color yellow is linked to joy and happiness more among residents of countries that don’t typically see a lot of sunshine or warm weather. Meanwhile, countries that get more than enough sun don’t associate yellow with happiness.

These results are eye-opening, but the full relationship between colors and emotions is still very much a mystery. The study’s authors say that a lot more research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn on when or how these associations (and differences) were ingrained in human nature.

“There is a range of possible influencing factors: language, culture, religion, climate, the history of human development, the human perceptual system,” Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel concludes.

On that note, however, a machine learning program developed by Dr. Oberfeld-Twistel himself did lead to one more noteworthy finding. Color-emotion perception differences among individual nations tend to grow more apparent the farther two nations are located from one another, or if the two nations use very different languages.

There’s no shortage of factors that keep us separated from our fellow humans. Borders on maps, language barriers, and cultural distinctions, just to name a few. This study, though, serves as a refreshing reminder that there are certain traits universal to the human condition.

The full study can be found here, published in Psychological Science.