Monday, September 28, 2015

Inside Out: Color and Emotion

We all know and love Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear from the Pixar movie Inside Out. Now, take a look at the picture above. You know there is something wrong. It doesn’t even matter if you haven’t seen the movie, the deepest and darkest part of your gut is telling you that there is something inherently wrong with this picture (and no, it is not my nonexistent editing skills). Personally, when I look at the color yellow I think of the warm glow of the sun, and of scalding yet cheery summers filled with sunflowers. When I think of red, I imagine a bull fuming with rage and ready to tear apart a piece of red cloth or the boiling lava within a volcano. These lead me to feel happy (yellow) or impassioned (red). This isn’t an uncommon practice; colors are rich with symbolism, which influences the way we connect colors with emotions. We also use colors in our everyday life and help us make sense of information in certain situations. For example, we associate green and red with the signal “go” and “stop” (Kuhbandner & Pekrun, 2013). This is because we typically use red as a signal for threatening or negative information (such as alarms), while green is security and safety (Travis, 1991; as cited by Kuhbandner & Pekrun, 2013). 

Green and red provide cues telling us about imminent danger or possible benefits which could aid in survival. These associations even permeate into the way we use language, such as being caught “ red handed” or when we “see red” (Moller, Elliot, & Maier 2009). Perhaps the animators felt this way about colors too, resulting in the appropriate color combinations we know: yellow for Joy, red for Anger, blue for Sadness, green for Disgust, and purple for Fear.  Take note that the use of colors can be very powerful, since the connotations of these colors may help speed up the way we think and feel. When we use colors appropriately, these may help viewers make associations more quickly. But if colors are linked to emotions we don’t quickly associate them to, it may just lead to internal conflict.  For example, when red was paired with negative words, there was a strong increase in memory for these words (Kuhbandner & Pekrun, 2013) . On the other hand, green increased memory for positive words. 
So if red increases memory for something negative, should we just
highlight our whole book red?

So if we look into the realm of literature, how much of it did Pixar get right? Does crippling fear necessarily equate to lavender? Does red elicit anger?

 Previous studies have investigated color and emotion and have shown the vast differences color-emotion associations (Ballast, 2002; Wexner, 1982; as cited by Kaya & Epps, 2004). For example,  purple was seen as dignified and stately, and orange was perceived as distressing or upsetting. Taking note of orange’s descriptors, there have also been reports of higher levels of anxiety when seeing red or yellow (Kwallek, Lewis, & Robbins, 1988, Mahnke & Mahnke, 1993, as cited by Kaya & Epps, 2004) (what do you get when you put them together?). Did these associations not fit into the emotions you related to these colors? Fear not! Some emotions are also associated with more than one color (perhaps your association is the less popular choice). Now, let me guess what you’re thinking: “While these are interesting facts, they sure don’t give us the condensed answer we’re looking for!” Luckily for us, there’s a study that does just that which was conducted by Kaya & Epps (2004). They studied several colors, including red, yellow, green, blue and purple. By having their participants view the different colors and rate whether they felt positive, negative, or neutral about them, the researchers found out that responses were even more positive for the five colors (79.6%) when compared to intermediate hues like yellow-green (64.5%) or achromatic colors like black or white (29.2%).  So the five colors elicited positive responses generally, but what were the individual results? The color that got the highest number of positive responses was green (95.9%). Yes green- Disgust’s color! Many of the participants felt relaxed and calm when shown the color green, and it brought about images of nature and trees. I wouldn’t immediately associate Disgust with the words “relaxation” or “comfort”. Luckily, Disgust may have a closely-related alternative to green. In the study, the color green-yellow happened to have the lowest number of positive responses. The reason
I know its a sad memory because its blue!
behind it was people thought of vomit when they saw it, leading them to feel sick or disgusted.  Green was followed by color yellow in terms of positive responses (92%) and was seen to be generally lively and energetic. Yellow also brought about positive emotions like happiness and excitement (much like Joy who was darting from one place to another and always coming up with ideas in the movie). They also associated yellow with the sun, blooming flowers, and summer time. In the middle of the pack for positive responses was blue (79.6%), followed by red and purple (64.3% each). While blue was seen as relaxing and calming, it was also associated with sadness, depression, and loneliness. I think that this is still the perfect color for Sadness, since I believe that Sadness represented the human tendency to both brood and contemplate. Sadness not only allowed Riley to feel depressed, but also sort through her thoughts and come to an important realization by the end of the movie. Purple was associated with a variety of feelings, including happiness, power, boredom and sadness. While purple was also associated with fear, it was also linked to comfort which can be seen as its total opposite! Maybe purple wasn’t the best choice for Fear. Orange, the more 'distressing' color, would've been a more appropriate color for the constantly neurotic Fear. In terms of associations, purple was linked to laughter and children, but received negative responses simply because purple was not a favorite color. Lastly, red was seen as both positive (associated with love and
When I think of red, I think of roses, passionate love, and
this guy in red spilling blood and guts everywhere (coming
2016 in a theater near you)
romance), and negative (people thought of fights, blood, and evil).  I guess in this case, Anger represented our ‘negative’ or destructive associations with red. So in the end, Pixar got it mostly right.Yellow for Joy, red for Anger, and blue for Sadness fit them to a tee. However, they should’ve considered different colors for Disgust (maybe yellow-green would’ve been better), and orange for Fear. Perhaps they did consider this as they were making the film.However, artistically and marketing-wise green and purple may have been the better choice (for example, orange is too closely related to yellow and red on the color wheel). Also, they probably didn’t want people sending out projectiles of vomit whenever they saw Disgust. 

You see that woman in black?
SPOILER: She's in black because she's
Before we end this little entry, let’s try addressing a question that’s probably been nagging you for a while now. These studies were done in specific countries or cultures, so can we really generalize these findings? Does the rest of the world feel the same, or are there only a few people in existence who lump Joy together with yellow? After all, Inside Out was internationally released. Foreign viewers might get distracted if blue was seen as a happy color in their culture! Our color preferences (or when a color elicits positive or negative feelings) mediate the relationship between color and emotion.  These color preferences may be culturally-based. For example, in Australia dark colors such as black were linked to negative emotions such as sadness and anger (Boyatzis & Varghese, 1994; as cited by Kaya & Epps, 2004). But in Japan, black resulted in both negative and positive reactions, especially since young people preferred black (Saito, 1996; as cited by Kaya & Epps, 2004). Sometimes, these associations are even the opposite of each other! In Western tradition, black is linked to death and mourning. But in China, white is the color of death! On the other side of the coin, Gao et al. (2015) stated that cultural background had limited influence on color-emotion association. They looked at color emotions of people from four Asia regions (Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), and three western regions (Italy, Sweden, and Spain) to see how much culture influenced the way people relate color to emotion. After obtaining scores, the researchers used factor analysis to help them find differences in color emotion between cultures, and to pinpoint possible reasons that contributed to these differences. They found out that the meaning of color was derived mainly by lightness and chroma (82%) and a little by hue(7%). Culture wasn't even found to be one of the main influences. I guess that in the end, we have no conclusive evidence for why people associate colors and emotions differently, or if there really is significant difference. It may just be a little bit of both culture and biology- we’ll just have to see where science leads us to.

Ballast, D. K. (2002). Interior design reference manual. Professional Pub. Inc.: Belmont, CA. Kuhbandner, C., & Pekrun, R. (2013). Joint effects of emotion and color on memory. Emotion, 13(3), 375.
Kwallek, N., Lewis, C. M., Lin-Hsiao, J. W. D., & Woodson, H. (1996). Effects of nine monochromatic office interior colors on clerical tasks and worker mood. Color Research and Application, 21(6), 448-458.
Mahnke, F. H., & Mahnke, R. H. (1993). Color and light in man-made environments. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Moller, A. C., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2009). Basic hue-meaning associations. Emotion, 9(6), 898.
NAz, K. A. Y. A., & Epps, H. (2004). Relationship between color and emotion: A study of college students. College Student J, 38(3), 396.
Pixar Animation Studios. (2015). Inside Out [digital image]. Retrieved from
Gao, X. P., Xin, J. H., Sato, T., Hansuebsai, A., Scalzo, M., Kajiwara, K., ... & Billger, M. (2007). Analysis of cross-cultural color emotion. Color research and application, 32(3), 223-229.

Wexner, L. B. (1982). The degree to which colors .are associated with mood-tones. Journal of Applied Psychology, 6, 432-435.

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