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Color Reaches Deep Within Our Unconscious

Original research documents some sources of the emotional power of colors.

/photo by permission from David Griff
Jim Dine exhibition at Centre Pompidou, Paris, winter, 2018
Source: /photo by permission from David Griff

Take a few deep breaths, sit with your feet on the floor, close your eyes, and allow yourself to relax. Imagine yourself in your happy, peaceful place and examine your surroundings. What do you see? What colors, textures, shapes, movement, or stillness are around you? Are there sounds? What are they? Any smells? Do you have memories that attach themselves to the smells? Can you find words to describe how you feel?

Revisit the colors that surround you. What names do you give them? Does the palette vary with similar hues, intensities? Or is there contrast in colors, perhaps variations in their shades or intensities? Imagine a rainbow. Are the colors on your palette on the pastels or saturated ends of the spectrum? How does your body respond to shifting the intensity of color along that continuum?

Source: maciej326/pixabay

Now imagine opening your closet. What do you see? Look around at your walls. Examine your transportation, whether car or bike or bus. What colors do you see? How do you feel when you look at them? Close your eyes again and imagine surrounding yourself with walls of each of the major colors of the ROYGBP color wheel, the red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple sectors of a rainbow. Vary the intensity, the hue, the shade. Imagine looking at paint strips or samples. Which shades draw you to them and which push you away (or do you want to push away)? Can you associate various reactions to colors with your own emotions?

In an ingenious line of research, Christine Mohr, Domicele Jonauskaite, and their colleagues and students at the University of Lausanne have been investigating people’s emotional associations to color along with cultural influences on those associations. They have used an online research tool, the Geneva Emotion Wheel, Version 3.0, developed by scientists at the University of Geneva along with color labels, to gather their data from people 15 years and older who report that they do not have vision issues around color perception.

In one recent study, 36 collaborators from 36 institutions analyzed emotional reactions to colors (with the emotion and color labels translated into local languages) from more than 4500 respondents from 30 countries. The researchers wanted to examine how universally people in various cultures respond to color/emotion associations.

This line of inquiry is one that has intrigued me because it suggests a route to better understanding ourselves and our own differences, a topic that I have written more about most recently in relation to our reactions to stressors. The Lausanne research program reminds me of the initial investigations into the universality of facial expressions of emotion conducted by Paul Ekman and his colleagues, with a critical difference. Whereas the Ekman team was curious about an underlying universal human facial expressions that could document various hard-wired emotions, the Mohr lab has been looking into stimuli that evoke those emotions and ways in which the cultures in which we are embedded can trigger modifications of those initially universal responses. An effective visual summary of the multi-national study is available with the authors’ summary.

In short, ample evidence for universal associations suggests an origin of emotional responses to color in human evolution; nonetheless, these associations are modified depending on the “language, environment, and culture” in which one lives. These data are compellingly consistent with Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory of development.

Source: maxmann/Pixabay

Go back to your original imagery exercises. What did you learn about yourself and your reactions to colors? Did your discoveries lead you to ask other questions, perhaps when (if at all) do you and your partner argue about the colors for spaces where you live, eat, sleep? Does your child request infinite rereadings of Brown Bear, Brown Bear or Mouse Paint? Are they fascinated by the rainbow or by reflections of light on water or through prisms? Did you ever search for a consultant when “Color Me Beautiful” analyses were a fad? If so, did shifts in your wardrobe result in shifts in your attitudes towards yourself? In the responses of others towards you? Do you gravitate to some colors for work and others for play and still others for intimacy? Has mixing food coloring for cupcake icing been a favorite family activity? Have you traveled to an exotic place and felt the urge to bring home souvenirs in popular tones and themes, in order to keep experiences close to you? Has a parent-to-be issued directives about what colors are and are not acceptable in gifts for the as-yet-unborn child? Are there colors you avoid entirely?

Your visceral responses can help you discover more about yourself and your own emotional reactions as well as sources of unconscious connection or conflict with others. I wish you an illuminating journey. Best of all, I hope that you will follow the research flowing from the University of Lausanne laboratory’s investigations and, hopefully, that the scientists will begin describing it themselves for PsychologyToday readers in the near future.

Copyright 2020 Roni Beth Tower


Jonauskaite, D., et al. (2020). Universal Patterns in Color-Emotion Associations Are Further Shaped by Linguistic and Geographic Proximity. Psychological Science, 31(10), 1245–1260.