Humans Are Better Able To Describe Warm Colors Than Cool Colors

Color is not an objective thing, as we often assume, but varies from culture to culture. Dave Hallewell/Shutterstock

Even though the sky may obviously be blue to us, this is not an objective fact. In many cultures around the world, the labeling of different hues is more subjective than we might be inclined to think. New research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, seems to back up the notion that our perception of color is far more to do with culture than biology.

By asking 40 members of the Tsimane’ tribe, who live in a remote part of the Bolivian Amazon and have developed language separately from surrounding groups, researchers were able to assess which colors have more words. These colors were more distinct to the tribe. They found that consistently with speakers of at least 100 other languages, the Tsimane’ could distinguish well between black, white, and red hues, but unlike us, not the greens and blues.

“When we look at it, it turns out it’s the same across every language that we studied,” explained lead author Edward Gibson. “Every language has this amazing similar ordering of colors, so that reds are more consistently communicated than greens or blues.”

Most of us see the same color when we look at objects regardless of where we are from, but it is the information we need that varies from culture to culture. The Tsimane’ simply don’t need to describe as many colors as we do, and when they do it tends to be those on the warmer side of the color spectrum.

To examine why this might be, the researchers turned to a database of 20,000 images collected by Microsoft and analyzed their color pixels. They found that objects in the foreground of images were more likely to be of warmer colors, with cooler greens and blues tending to make up the background.

“Warm colors are in the foreground, they’re all the stuff that we interact with and want to talk about,” said Gibson. “We need to be able to talk about things which are identical except for their color: objects.” This could help explain why, for example, the Tsimane’ do not say that the sky is blue, as there are no two skies which they have to distinguish between and so the color is merely incidental.

This makes sense for the Tsimane’, who live in an environment dominated by cooler shades, and for the Hadza hunter-gatherers of East Africa who have more words for warm colors than cool ones. The researchers are now interested in finding out whether their discovery holds true for other indigenous groups living in environments dominated by different colors, like those living in sandy deserts or white snow.

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