Where do the color meanings and the common associations come from, and why do some of these meanings change depending on certain cultures? This article expresses theories and ideas on how certain color associations develop and remain with us to this day.
Why do different cultures have different meanings?
Perhaps the biggest question and debate in psychology is the Nature vs Nurture question. What is biological (Nature) including meanings and associations, and what is learned or programmed into us via cultural or other means (Nurture).
The research on this question suggests that who we are comes from a combination of both nature and nurture, with much evidence and research supporting this. This is one way I think of it, the biological is the foundation to our psyche, and then cultural and other forms of programming are built on top.
Generally more free societies have less cultural influences, therefore, that which is biology will likely dominate. The reverse is true for societies that have strong cultural beliefs, including religious or strong superstitious beliefs. In these societies the learned behaviors and cultural programming will be more of an influencing factor, and are more likely to override biological meanings.
You also have to factor in that some cultural beliefs could in-fact stem from meanings which are biological. So in this case, that which is biology, and that which is learned or cultural become one and the same.
A possible example of this is the common associations in the western world regarding the male and female colors, blue and pink as boy and girl colors, cultural/learned or biological? This changed over time, the boy and girl colors revered, however did it change from biological to cultural, like some claim, however perhaps it’s the other way round, maybe it changed from cultural meanings or ideas, to biological meanings.
In modern times as western societies have become absent of myth, less religious and superstitious, the meanings that stem from biology are more likely to win out. There’s simply less cultural or societal programming.
Red – Biological
The color red is a very good example of very different biological and cultural or learned meanings. Red has associations to anger, aggression and danger, these associations occur in the insect and arachnid world, and they have been around since before the dinosaurs. Particularly the association to the Color Red and Danger is hundreds of millions of years old. This would come under a universal biological meaning.
Red – Cultural
The color red in China has some strong cultural meanings that are very different. For example, red is associated with good luck, success and generally has positive meanings. Red is also believed to repel negativity and evil. The reason why red is considered good luck in China is because of a mythical beast called the Nian, which was part lion and part bull. This beast was believed to feed upon the villages at the start of each new year, and one of the things that this beast was afraid of was the color red, therefore red became the color of good luck.
This is similar to why the number thirteen is considered bad luck in the western world. This unlucky association stems from its biblical Christian meanings, which creates a negative superstitious association in many people, even to this day.
How color associations come to be is both the result of what is biologically built into us and culturally learned. Which one wins out will be greatly dependent upon the dominance of certain beliefs, cultural influences and individual personalities.