Cognitive Daily

Adults have been found cross-culturally to prefer blue to other colors. It’s a nearly universal preference. But does this preference occur naturally, or do children and infants have different preferences? Prior to 2001, there wasn’t a definitive answer to this question. In that year, Marcel Zentner of the University of Geneva conducted a study that not only answered that question, but also sought to explore the relationship between color and emotion (“Preferences for colours and Colour-Emotion Combinations in Early Childhood,” Developmental Science, 2001).

Zentner’s study showed 3- and 4-year-olds a set of nine colored cardboard rectangles and asked them to bring them to the experimenter one by one, starting with the one they liked best. Next they were showed pictures of three faces: a happy face, a sad face, and an angry face. They were asked to pick the color card that went with the face (they only had six cards to choose from for this task: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, Brown, and Black).

The entire task was repeated with adults. As expected, the adults preferred blue to the other colors. The children’s favorite color, however, was red. Zentner speculates that adults may have learned to associate red with negative things, such as blood and poison, and so that is why the preference shifts from childhood to adulthood.

Adults also mapped emotion to color differently from children. The adults were very consistent in their choices of color to associate with emotion: Happy was yellow, Sad was black, and Angry was red. Children, by contrast, chose a range of colors to associate with each face. Happy tended to be red, and Sad tended to be blue, but each color was chosen for each emotion more than once. No single color was a favorite to represent Angry. One significant correlation Zentner did find is that children tended to associate bright colors with Happy and dark colors with Sad.

So young children do associate color with emotion, but they do it differently from adults. The arbitrariness of the particular colors they choose suggests that the link between color and emotion is imposed by society in different ways for different ages. It’s especially interesting to me that adults are so consistent in the emotions they associate with a particular color. Somehow these colors come to represent particular emotions quite uniformly in a variety of adults, even though children see color and emotion linked in an entirely different way.

Comments

  1. video

    Color preference in kids and adults .

  2. #2 Chris Tregenza
    June 14, 2005

    Does the research look at how our eyes changes over time? As we get older the ability to perceive colour changes so I wonder is there also a shift between childhood and adulthood?

    It would also be interesting to repeat this experiment with dyslexics suffering from Meares-Irlen Syndrome (http://www.myomancy.com/2005/04/meares8211irlen.html) to see if their colour choices were different.

  3. #3 Jay McNair
    June 22, 2005

    Fascinating thing about adults cross-culturally preferring blue over other colors; now that I think to look, the evidence abounds (or so it seems). My computer screen right now shows the blue Windows Taskbar at the bottom, the blue bar at the top of Internet Explorer, and almost exclusively blue shades on your website. Looking further, the color of the Internet is blue (well, white’s more dominant, but of cardinal colors, blue is the biggest): blue is the default color for links–the building blocks of the Web–and the predominant color of Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other sites designed for mass use.

    I’m sure there’s other evidence out there, but this is what I see first.
    Or, perhaps they just want to match those blue links.

  4. #4 Jessica Rego
    November 1, 2005

    Is it possible that we do not attach emotion to color but the other way around? That when we are sad we perceive the world darker and look for those dark colors such as blue and black and that at any age we look for the same color, or at least the same hue of colors, when we feel that emotion? Happy is a bright emotion; both yellow and red are bright colors.

  5. #5 barbara dellinger
    December 11, 2005

    Hi, I am an interior designer working on a hospital for Women and Children. We need to gather data regarding the preferences of Women of child bearing age. I was not able to print out your research but it looks interesting. Can you help?
    THanks,
    Barbara Dellinger
    HDR Architects
    Alexandria, VA

  6. #6 Norma Vogel
    May 5, 2006

    hi,
    could someone please tell me how many kids where ask for that? i would like to present this experiment to my colleagues but i need a bit more information.
    besides, i love blue, too.
    thanks for all,
    norma

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    May 5, 2006

    Norma,

    127 children participated in the study. Here’s a link to the entire study.

  8. #8 Stefan Janssen
    January 23, 2009

    The link does not link to the entire study but to this page. If anyone still reads this, I would be interested in the whole study.

  9. #9 Dave Munger
    January 23, 2009

    Oops, sorry about that Stefan — I fixed the link now.

  10. #10 andrea kowalchik
    January 23, 2009

    I suffer from severe depression and find colors have severe effects on me. I moved to Arizona and call it van Gogh country because of the yellow waves of prairy grass. I had to walk out of the movie ‘Littlest Mermaid’ because the blues and greans were spinning me down hill. I tried to find out which collors affected me different ways. After screen savers came out, I realized it is the presents or absents of golden glow like sunshine and yellow grass etc that lifts my spirits. It has little to do with the other colors mixed in. I am very much interested in the nuerological activity between color and mood swings.