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.