Colour psychology

Colors shape our environment. Humans are rarely indifferent about them, in particular when they are salient. Popular opinion assumes that colors are interacting with our affective state, may it be in the form of mood changes or wellbeing. Given the current published scientific literature, we are very skeptical that general claims can be made regarding color-affect relationships. So far, we miss a sufficient number of systematic investigations that adhere to common empirical standards. With our studies, we aim to enrich the scientific literature that will eventually inform on how color can be linked to affect in a reliable and valid manner. The different projects listed below join three axes of expertise: experimental paradigms from cognitive psychology, theoretical frameworks from emotion psychology, and extensive knowledge on colour science in everyday applications.

Some examples of recent publications:

  • Mohr, C., Jonauskaite, D., Dan-Glauser, E. S., Uusküla, M., & Dael, N. (2018). Unifying research on colour and emotion: Time for a cross-cultural survey on emotion associations to colour terms. In L. W. MacDonald, C. P. Biggam, & G. V. Paramei (Eds.), Progress in Colour Studies: Cognition, Language, and beyond. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Jonauskaite, D., Mohr, C., Antonietti, J.-P., Spiers, P. M., Althaus, B., Anil, S., & Dael, N. (2016). Most and Least Preferred Colours Differ According to Object Context: New Insights from an Unrestricted Colour Range. Plos One, 11(3), 1–22.
  • Dael, N., Perseguers, M.-N., Marchand, C., Antonietti, J.-P., & Mohr, C. (2015). Put on that colour, it fits your emotion: Colour appropriateness as a function of expressed emotion. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (2006), 218(October), 1–12.
  • Dael, N., Sierro, G., & Mohr, C. (2013). Affect-related synesthesias: a prospective view on their existence, expression and underlying mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(October), 754.

CARLA collaborators:

Principal external collaborators:


Semantic colour-emotion associations

Colours are frequently associated to emotions in how we think and communicate.

Whereas popular opinions are clear-cut, results from scientific studies are mixed (e.g. is red negative?). In this project we study implicit and explicit semantic colour-emotion associations:

  • In the laboratory, we adopt a masked priming paradigm to investigate how emotional connotations of colour concepts are processed and assessed implicitly.
  • We are performing a large-scale, international survey ( in which we aim to assess how color concepts (color terms) associate to a large variety of emotions. Having respondents from many languages and cultures, we assess their commonalities and differences that are potentially based on biological or culturally (in)variant experiences. Further, mappings consist in multiple interrelated colour-emotional associations rather than exclusive one-to-one relationships. These data build on a comprehensive inventory of semantic colour-emotion associations that will allow us and others to develop and test further research questions. Results may also foster neighbouring research areas, in particular on how colour-emotion associations shape color preferences.
Affectively driven colour choices

In this project we examine how emotionally salient stimuli influence colour choices through several lines of research.

  • In a series of laboratory experiments we demonstrate that colour appropriateness judgments and even basic colour reproduction is influenced by the emotional context in a way that the colour choices match or fit the affective meaning of the stimulus (e.g., bodily expression, see also project “Nonverbal communication of emotion”). Findings support the existence of systematic yet not one-to-one colour-emotion associations (such as affective valence with colour brightness, with a large variance regarding hue) that implicitly affect both basic and higher order colour cognition.
  • In a second line of studies we test how induced affect (mood, emotion) impacts on colour choices and vice versa, how individually chosen colours rather than preselected colours (by the researcher) as proposed in chromatherapy may be used to induce an affective state.
  • A third research line focuses on how colour-emotion associations drive aesthetic colour judgment. We use this framework to investigate colour preferences (liking and disliking) exploring differences between individuals and contexts. Findings extend our current understanding of the role of affect in colour preferences, indicating mainly a) that general colour preferences do not generalize to specific objects (clothes, interior etc.), b) disliked colours seem to be processed differently than liked colours, c) affective associations to chosen colours are not only related to liked or disliked objects but also to concepts (symbols). Research gate link to project here?
  • Across these studies, new methods are being developed and used allowing intuitive yet precise colour selection in the laboratory as well as outside, aiming to improve reliability of online colour selection.
Effect of colour on the subjective perception of space

Expert opinions in consultancy and marketing motivate consumers to colour their environment in order to boost cognitive or affective functions (such as “violet helps to concentrate in an office”), or to create perceptions of bigger space. Surprisingly little empirical evidence exists that translate to founded messages.

This project is aimed at understanding how coloured environments influence spatial exploration of these environments. Of particular interest is the causal relation between colour perception and the subjective experience of room size, including its impact on subjective well-being or adaptiveness in particular situations.

Nonverbal communication of emotion

Emotion communication research strongly focuses on the face and voice as expressive modalities, leaving the rest of the body and its surroundings (e.g., colour environment) relatively understudied.

  • Contrary to the early assumption that body movement only indicates emotional intensity, this research adds to the growing evidence that body movement also conveys emotion specific information. This research translates assumptions across the domains of emotion research (face and voice), linguistic approaches (gesture and sign language), clinical psychology and ethology. In order to enhance our understanding on the role of body movement in nonverbal communication (of emotion or other), we developed computer-assisted manual and automatic tools such as the Body Action and Posture coding system and feature extraction algorithms. These tools allow us and others to reliably and objectively measure patterns of expression and perception through body movement and to evaluate them against hypotheses from different theoretical perspectives.

    External collaborators:
    Annika Huber, Stefanie Riemer, & Hanno Würbel (University of Bern)
    Martijn Goudbeek (University of Tilburg)
    Klaus Scherer & Marcello Mortillaro (Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva)
    Michael Kipp (Augsburg University of Applied Sciences)
    Antonio Camurri (University of Genova)
  • Beyond a person’s expression, features of the surrounding environment also influence human interaction. Here, we merge the fields of affective nonverbal communication and colour science, in order to better understand how we use colour to express ourselves and judge others. In one study we showed for example that we systematically and spontaneously associate particular colours to bodily expressions, congruent with the underlying emotion. Further, merely seeing these emotional expressions changes the way we remember the colour on the expressor’s clothes in line with the depicted emotion (e.g., brighter for positive expressions, see also project “Affectively driven colour choices”).
Individual differences in colour-emotion associations

Colours are associated to emotions in common language (e.g. feeling blue) and everyday behaviour (e.g., choosing clothing colours to match or improve one’s mood). We are testing the links between colours and emotions using different techniques, measuring semantic and perceptual colours, and in different populations to assess the universality/specificity of colour-emotion associations. By investigating clinical populations (e.g., colour-blind people) and people coming from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, we will be able to assess biological and environmental contributions to the formation of colour and emotions associations. A large-scale international colour survey is part of the project (


© Nele Dael

GĂ©opolis - CH-1015 Lausanne
Tel. +41 21 692 35 25