Examples of our research

Do children have reliable conceptual colour associations?

Previous studies at the Surrey Baby Lab have investigated colour preference in infants and adults of different cultures and found very interesting patterns of findings. Typically, Western adults will show a preference for blue hues and a dislike of greenish yellows, although these hue preferences (i.e., preferences for different categories of colour such as blue over yellow) interact with other aspects of colour like lightness (how light or dark a colour is) and saturation (how intense or strong a colour is). In comparison to adults, infants look relatively less at light blue and relatively more at dark yellow, indicating that colour preference changes across development. Although in adults, longer looking mirrors preference or liking, it is difficult to tell if infant patterns of looking equate to preference or looking per se.

Adults have shown gender differences and cross cultural differences in their colour preferences, and so it looks like the pattern of preferences is not a simple one. We know that context is key to colour preference and it may be that preferences relate to the things we associate with certain colours. For example, if asked what your favourite colour is your answer might depend on whether it is a colour for an item of clothing you are going to wear, or for a car you are going to buy. Western adults’ preference for bluish colours and dislike of greenish yellow colours may be because we have some kind of evolutionary associations between these colours and certain objects, such as blue and fresh water or clear skies, which are both positive things, and greenish yellow with bile or faeces, which are negative things.

One of our current studies seeks to explore the role of association in greater depth and investigates whether there are strong and reliable abstract or symbolic associations for colours, and whether these associations differ across cultures and development. So far we have found that British adults show quite strong and reliable associations for some colours, such as associations between the colour red and concepts like ‘danger’, ‘anger’ or ‘fighting’, or with concepts like ‘lust’, which has very different connotations. When asked to generate associations from looking at colour arrays, Chinese adults came up with some very different colour associations compared to British adults. We are currently exploring colour associations in children to reveal more about whether aspects of colour cognition rely on experience. It is possible that we need time to develop and establish reliable colour associations and this work will inform us about when in development this might occur

Does the colour red affect performance in childhood?

Past research proposes that the colour red can affect the performance of adults on a range of different tasks. It has been suggested that this is a product of learning. For example, the negative connotations associated with the colour red could be learnt by the use of red pens by teachers to mark mistakes in schools and the use of the colour to signify danger. However, there has been very little research on how red affects performance in childhood. Therefore, we are keen to expand current knowledge by testing children, as they have had less exposure to colour in a learning context. We are asking the question: Does the colour red significantly affect children’s performance?

For this study, the children firstly complete a symbol search task. This is to give us an indication of each child’s cognitive ability and ensure that there are no significant differences between the children assigned to each colour condition. Next, the children complete a visual matching task, immediately after seeing one of the following colours: red, green, blue or grey. The aim of this task is to reveal whether the children who have been exposed to the colour red process information differently to the children who have been exposed to other colours. This will help us to understand more about how colour can be used in educational contexts.

We are currently running the study on a range of different age groups. We are looking at 4 year old children who have not yet been exposed to the school environment and therefore should be unlikely to have learnt any negative associations with the colour red in a learning context. We are also looking at 6 year old children  and 8 year old children (who have been exposed to the colour red in a learning context) to see if there are any differences in the effects of colour across development.

Does your baby use colour to recognise objects?

The recognition of objects is a crucial part of a baby’s development. Without it, understanding the world around them would be almost impossible. Object recognition involves the use of many different cues, one of which is colour. Infants have been found to look  longer at objects that are presented in their natural colour (e.g., a red strawberry) as opposed to an unnatural colour (e.g., a blue strawberry).  It has therefore been assumed that infants prefer looking at natural coloured objects because they are familiar to them, but is this really what is going on? 

One of our current studies explores a number of different questions relating to the role of colour in infant object recognition. For example: How important is colour in object recognition? At what age do infants begin to use colour to recognise objects? Do infants really look longer at objects presented in their natural colour and if so does this mean they have a preference for naturally coloured objects? Do we get the same effects across a range of different types of objects (e.g., faces, fruit, flowers, animals)?

In the current study babies are shown pairs of faces on a computer monitor and their pattern of looking is recorded with a special camera. We then see whether babies look longer at faces presented in their natural or unnatural colour and whether their patterns of looking are similar to adults. The study aims to increase our understanding of how babies see and interact with the world, and also provide information about the role of colour in object recognition.