Is Blue Far?

Colours in Cultures diagram got me thinking.  Some cross-cultural associations (weak in parens):

  • PINK: healthy, children, femininity, (erotic)
  • GREEN: life, nature, growth, eternity, religion, compassion, jealousy
  • WHITE: purity, luxury, trust, truce, peace, (death)
  • RED: heat, danger, anger, passion, success, excitement, desire,  marriage, love, (erotic)
  • BLUE: cold, rational, art, gods, freedom, loyalty, unhappy, trouble
  • BLACK: evil, bad luck, self-cultivation, penance, style, authority, (death)
  • PURPLE: decadence, flamboyance, gratitude, wisdom, beauty, cruelty, mystery
  • YELLOW: illness, cowardice, deceit, fun, joy, repels evil, strength
  • BROWN:  earthy, (reliable)
  • ORANGE: warmth, learning, (family, friendly, healing)

I couldn’t resist looking for concept-color schemes to explain these.  After all, the concepts associated with key colors must be important concepts. My guesses:

  • PINK: healthy skin, esp. nipples/lips/genitals, = red + white = clean sex
  • GREEN: nature, nature spirits & their emotions
  • WHITE: clean
  • RED: fire/blood/blush, hot emotions, especially domination & sex
  • BLUE: sky/water, far objects & mental mode
  • BLACK: night/dark, bad/selfish
  • PURPLE: rare, = red+blue = far domination = high class/status?
  • YELLOW: urine/puss, sun = relaxed playful mood?
  • BROWN: dirt/ground
  • ORANGE: fire??

I’ve ordered the colors from easy to hard to interpret.  Pink, green, and white seem pretty obvious.  Red, blue, and black are less clear, but we seem to have a rough handle on them.  Purple, yellow, orange, and brown seem hardest to understand.

After my amateur effort above, I went looking for other accounts, finding this, this, this, and this.  Not sure I’ve found the good stuff though. Hat tip to Katja Grace.

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  • Dylan

    The yellow/illness connection is probably based on snot/pus/urine coloration.

    The urine connection might be where the cowardice connection comes from, as well: what is a common physical reaction posited for cowards?

  • Dylan

    And the fun/joy associations are likely to do with the sun.

  • Dylan

    Is there anything about purple that can’t be explained by the historic royalty/wealth connection when it was the most expensive dye?

    It seems a mistake to try to explain these from your conceptual framework.

    • That’s what I’ve read too – purple dyes were rare and hard to make, so usually only royalty or wealthy people could afford them. Then again, it was a design book decidedly unwritten by scientists, so there could be more.

  • phane

    I’ve always figured black was the “evil color” because it reminds us of night and the dark, and by association the frightening things that we can’t see.

  • Patri Friedman

    Umm….I think your adjective “Earthy” makes it pretty obvious that we associate brown with “dirt”.

  • Norman

    Not to be too nit-picky, but if pink receives its associations due to healthy skin, we would expect those associations to break down to some extent in cultures and ethnic groups where healthy skin is not, in fact, pink. Is this the case? Or is it more associated with, say, healthy tissue in animals?

    And I second Patri’s association of brown with dirt. Seems obvious to me. Orange is the hardest to classify, I think.

  • Bill

    Good post.

    Now, if a computer, color blind to the cultural preference of the populace, were to govern us, would the population feel uneasy?

    How do you program to accomodate emotive responses across an array of cultures?

    Humans can see emotions and emotional reactions.

    How does a computer object see emotions responding to its color choice?

  • Matt Simpson

    I’m immediately reminded of the Magic: the Gathering color pie. Quickly, M:tG separates its cards into 5 main colors, each with it’s own personality and favorite mechanics: White, Blue, Black, Red, Green. Compare the simple descriptions of the colors to the descriptions you give above:

    White: Order, balance, community
    Blue: Intellect, control, omniscience
    Black: Selfishness, amoral, power, death
    Red: Emotional, freedom, impulsive, chaos
    Green: Nature, instinct

    I take this as anecdotal evidence for your argument, especially because Wizards of the Coast (producers of M:tG) consciously tries to make M:tG intuitive on more than just the rules level, for example by associating the game’s colors with the things that those colors are already associated with.

  • Right about the expensive purple dye that the Phoenicians peddled. It became the royal color and has ever since been associated with luxury.

    It’s important to remember that coloring products could be expensive and difficult until the modern chemical industry got going only about a century ago. Today, we can make anything any color we want at a reasonable cost. But for a long, long time, there were all sorts of technical restrictions that meant certain colors were associated with certain objects, so there is much technical contingency about the traditional connotations of colors.

  • Dylan, I’ve added urine, sun to yellow; Patri, Norman I added dirt/ground to brown; phane, I’ve added night/dark to black.

    Dylan, Sean, Steve, I suspect that among the many rare dyes, we liked purple best because of its far domination tones.

    Matt, fascinating, and yes confirming.

  • I know in the middle ages there were supposed to be big differences between “black bile” and “yellow bile” personality-wise, but unlike blood or phlegm I can’t remember the last time I actually saw either of those two.

  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute psychologist Mark Changizi argues that color vision has evolved to allow humans to perceive skin-level oxygenation levels (which are in turn diagnostic of arousal). For a more general treatment of color perception, evolution and neuroscience see the work of University College London psychologist Beau Lotto (start from his very engaging TED talk).

  • Noumenon

    Orange = fire, which explains warmth. Orange is not associated with learning that I know of, the graph you linked refers to a whole book so I guess it’s in there.

  • William H. Stoddard

    So far as purple is concerned, I believe in a rather physicalistic hypothesis.

    The sensation of “purple” does not correspond to any wavelength of visible light. Rather, it’s produced by simultaneous activation of “red” and “blue” responses by light at opposite ends of the spectrum. Because of the laws of optics, these have different chromatic aberrations, indeed as different as is possible with visible light, and thus a purple object cannot be brought into sharp focus: either the red or the blue wavelengths, or both, must be blurry. This is not true of any other color.

    Though now that I think of it, the same effect may exist for white, though it may be less noticeable in that the eye can settle in the middle rather than oscillating between the extremes of the spectrum; does white have a sense of mystery or ineffability as a result?

  • Pink might not be so associated with healthy skin as much as it’s associated with lips, nipples and genitals (these features are sometimes pink or pink-ish in non-white humans too). This isn’t limited to humans; this color association seems to have had an even bigger impact on the bodies of baboons.

  • Check out the “pink in gender” section in the wikipedia article— associating pink with femininity is very recent.

  • The orange = fire seems obvious to me. And Brown = earth too. We stand on the earth, it’s reliable, and wel, down to earth.

    Purple and yellow are tricky, I agree. The red + blue thing doesn’t convince me, and neither does “urine”, but I it’s funny and intriguing.

    Otherwise i think you may be on to something.

  • Adrien

    For me, Red is obviously blood. However, pink has a local cultural meaning : was it tested in Asia, Africa or South America too?

  • I wonder if it is just me, but was blue the easiest to read for you people as well? If so, maybe because the color was mentioned in the title?

    Anyway, I see I have picked the right colors for my blog theme 🙂

  • Oh what comes to my mind about color. I noticed that the color of book covers influences my whole world of imagination for that particular story. If the book has a light color it’s the case for the whole story background. That is, the scenery, even if it takes place in space it’s rather in front of a bright background and gloomy for dark book covers. It probably influences a lot more than that, I’m not sure.

  • chuck

    Blood is red.

  • Tim Tyler

    Nice article – but very little mention of berries and flowers!

    You are all city-dwellers who eat a lot of processed food, maybe?

  • Hi, I’m not entirely sure if this is relevant, but you could probably find something from the palettes and patterns that the community creates at colourlovers e.g. their take on colours and mood

  • I added red:blood, pink:nipples/lips/genitals, orange:fire, purple:rare.

    Tim, what sorts of berry and flower colors do you suggest produce what concept associations?

    William, why does fuzzy = mystery?

  • William H. Stoddard

    Robin, the connection I’m making is that “seen in sharp focus” = rational, unmysterious, stable. Note the traditional association of faeries with twilight, a time of day when vision is blurrier, objects are less clearly seen, and the perceiver’s expectations (or fears) can give rise to momentary illusions. Purple objects by their nature cannot be seen clearly.

    Our natural behavior when confronting with an object that’s imperfectly resolved is to look more close, peer, squint, or otherwise bring it into sharper focus. But purple things cannot be perfectly resolved by doing so; one of the two wavelengths becomes more out of focus as the other is better resolved. They elude our optical “grasp.”

  • Red is also the color of fresh meat and blood.

    Additionally, red, orange and yellow are the colors of fruits and berries, a source of sugar in the ancestral environment.

    Brown is also the color of feces and dirt. I wonder, do car manufacturers sell brown-colored cars nowadays? I don’t remember seeing any recently.

  • Roko

    > BLUE: sky/water, far mental mode

    Interesting then that OB’s color is blue.

  • Roko

    > GREEN: life, nature, growth, eternity, religion, compassion, jealousy

    And LW – the place where we talk about saving the world (rather than just scoffing as it goes down the drain ;-0 ) is green. Weak evidence that LW/FAI is becoming a religion?

  • Your interpretation of blue seems far fetched. Most of those things can be experienced in near and far mode, and there are plenty of far related things in other color categories. I don’t see what ‘cold’ has to do with far. ‘Rational’ can be near or far depending whether it’s holistic analogizing or reductionistic reasoning. Art could be far inasmuch as it is to do with high ideals and abstraction, but pictures are near, and art is at least as connected to them. Freedom and loyalty can be high values or immediate feelings, and there are plenty of high values not linked to blue, such as love (certainly far), compassion, peace, success. I don’t see how unhappy and trouble are far. Gods are socially distant, fair enough there.

    • Katja, cold connects directly to water, and far emotions are more “cool” not “hot.” Traditional rationality is mostly holistic analogizing. Yes far ideals often have associated near feelings, but even so are far. Yes, other more direct associations give some ideals other colors. Unhappy and trouble are indeed surprising; I tentatively take this as new info suggesting far is unhappy/troubled.

  • Ah, found it. Yes, blue is far:

    • That seems very direct confirming evidence – far things literally do look more blue. Thanks!

  • Orange – reflected glow of fire light to be more specific. I

    Yellow – symptomatic of liver disease / jaundice. Implies poisoning

  • A while back Tyler Cowan presented a link to a program that purported to show how racially prejudiced a person was by having them look as faces and then click a word. The first thing that I though was that should have used Caucasians who were darker than the Negros as a control group.

  • Chris T

    Stefano – Red skin coloration may also have evolved in response to the presence of color vision or evolved in tandem.

  • Bill

    In looking at the colors you chose for your website, I am worried about the prominence of yellow:

    YELLOW: illness, cowardice, deceit, fun, joy, repels evil, strength

    Although you do have a predominance of Blue:

    BLUE: cold, rational, art, gods, freedom, loyalty, unhappy, trouble

    I wonder what a colorimetrically astute Freud would say.

  • Alan

    Interesting that if one changes the words slightly, some contexts may become more apparent, e.g., “empyreal” for blue pertains to the highest heaven in the cosmology of the ancients, i.e., celestial, and therefore far away. “Tyrrenhian” is purple used in ancient robes, apparently special and pricey because one had to crush so many mollusks to get an adequate quantity of dye. The exercise could be continued by substituting, say, “saffron,” for yellow to lend a more spiritual/cultural connotation.

  • Jack (LW)

    What about gray?

  • none

    To me yellow spells “cheap”, “sale”, “discount” – maybe a danish thing?

  • Khoth

    The diagram you’ve linked to for getting the colour associations seems quite incomplete – there are far fewer bars filled in on the inside.

    Also, you seem to be willing to declare something a cross-cultural assocition (eg pink=feminine) based on data showing the association only for one cultural group.

    Is there some other source of data you’re using to fill in your table at the top, then?

  • Bock

    According to synesthesia-inspired Jimi Hendrix:

    “Orange is young, full of daring but very unsteady for the first go ’round.”


    “Blue are the life giving waters taken for granted; they quietly understand.”

    Jimi seemed to think blue was far.

  • Bock

    But isn’t all symbolism far by definition?

  • According to Time’s reporting of a study published recently, “men who are shown pictures of a woman in a red dress want to ask her more amorous questions than men who are shown a picture of the same woman wearing blue or green. They also want to sit closer to her.”

    I guess red is sexy.

  • Anonymous

    Weren’t pink and blue swapped at one point on association? How much of this is really due to the spread of Western culture and values?

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