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By Jim Davies 鹿尤 选注

You don’t have to look very hard to see that our culture has some pretty powerful associations between colors and feelings. As a recent example, the Pixar film Inside Out has characters representing emotions, and the color choices for these characters—red for anger, and blue for sadness—feel right.

Red, specifically, is one of the most powerful colors in terms of its associations and the feelings it generates. Soccer players perceive red-shirted opponents to be better players, and one study indeed found that players wearing red shirts won sports games more often. Looking at red also seems to help people focus. Red enhances performance on detail-oriented tasks, whereas blue and green improve the results of creative tasks. Red is also sexual—men find women wearing red to be more attractive, and women think the same of men.

Why might this be? Although these associations are a part of our culture, are they arbitrary, or did they come about for reasons outside of culture, perhaps having to do with our biology or the environment we all live in?

Color is not distributed randomly in the world around us, and as we experience the world, we build up associations between colors and the things they represent. Yet red is a relatively rare color in the natural environment. Certain fruits, small parts of the sky at times, and blood are all red. When we get angry or embarrassed, our faces get redder (though the effect is less obvious in dark-skinned people).

But these appearances of red in our environment don’t seem to be enough to explain the breadth of red’s various connotations. And there is reason to think the meanings might be inherent to our biology: Red connotes high arousal, passion, and violence even for some non-human animals. When male mandrills face off, for instance, the paler (less red) male stands down. And macaques use red in sexual displays. Yet while poison dart frogs are brightly colored, they don’t skew toward red—many are green, yellow, and blue. This suggests that the general association with red is specific to primates, evolving before mandrills and humans differentiated. If it had been learned, as a result of being associated with passion and danger in the environment, we would expect broader cross-species associations; for instance, we might see that all poison animals were red. If red is indeed a warning color used to communicate among primates, specifically, then the associations with red might be innate yet arbitrary, meaning that it might just as easily have been another color that took on that role.

The difference between light and darkness is the most primitive and most visually and emotionally powerful aspect of color, and the associations in our environment for darkness and light seem clearer. This suggests that the implications of light and dark might be learned as well as evolved—that is, we might be born with certain reactions to light and dark that get reinforced through experience with the natural world and through culture. Darkness is scary because it prevents us from using our dominant sense: vision. So in that sense, the common negative associations with darkness are not arbitrary, as is primates’ use of red as a warning color. If a language has only two words for colors, those two words are invariably light and dark. In one experiment, people were supposed to speak aloud the words they saw flashed on the screen. People were faster at saying the words associated with immorality (such as “greed”) when they were in black, and faster at saying the “moral words” (such as “honesty) when they were in white—and this happened too quickly for them to deliberate about it. This shows that it was subconsciously easier for them to associate morality with lightness.

Not surprisingly, the use of light and dark in fiction and in religion tends to follow widespread associations of good and evil. Across cultures, darkness is associated with sickness, fear, and evil, probably stemming from the fact that the world is, and always has been, more dangerous at night—for our species. One of the few exceptions is some cultures’ use of white to symbolize death, though this may have more of a connotation of purity and the completion of a life cycle rather than loss and sadness.

Mice, which are nocturnal and more vulnerable when they can be seen, fear light and are comfortable in darkness. If mice could have religion, their god might say, “Let there be dark.”

1. Pixar: 皮克斯动画工作室,由乔布斯创立,后被迪士尼公司收购,皮克斯动画是历年来奥斯卡奖的热门;Inside Out: 《头脑特工队》(2015),是一部美国3D动画片,荣获奥斯卡最佳动画片奖,故事发生在一个小女孩的大脑中,她的五种情绪分别由五个角色代表,形象地演绎出情绪如何影响小女孩行为的。

2. perceive: 认为;opponent: 对手,敌手。

3. 对于需要注重细节的任务,红色可以增强人的执行力。

4. arbitrary: 任意的,随意的;come about: 发生。

5. randomly: 任意地,随机地。

6. breadth: 广泛性,广度;connotation: 内涵意义,隐含意义,后文connote为其动词形式,意为“暗示,意味着”。

7. inherent: 固有的,内在的;arousal: 唤起,〔尤指性欲的〕激起。

8. mandrill: 山魈(脸部为蓝红两色的大型非洲猴子);face off: 和……对抗,对峙;stand down: 退出(比赛等)。

9. macaque: 猕猴,短尾猴。

10. poison dart frog: 箭毒蛙,主要分布于巴西、圭亚那、哥伦比亚和中美洲的热带雨林中,通身鲜明多彩,常为黑与艳红、黄、橙、粉红、绿、蓝的结合;skew: 使偏斜,使歪斜。

11. 这表明,与红色的大致关联通常仅限于灵长类动物,而且早在山魈与人类产生分化之前就形成了。primate: 灵长类动物;differentiate: 使不同,使分化。

12. 如果人们接受了这个结果,认为红色与外界的激情和危险有关,那么我们就会设想红色与其他物种的更广泛的联系,比如我们会认为所有有毒的动物都是红色的。cross-species: 跨物种。

13. innate: 固有的,内在的。

14. 深和浅的差异是最原始的,也是色彩中最具视觉和情感冲击力的。primitive: 原始的。

15. 这表明,深色与浅色的含意在进化中不断得到新解,也就是说,我们可能生来就对深浅有特定的反应,并且这种感知会随着人们在自然界和文化里的经历而加强。implication: 含意,暗指;reinforce: 加强,加深。

16. invariably: 总是,永恒地。

17. greed: 贪婪,贪心;deliberate: 仔细考虑。

18. subconsciously: 下意识地。

19. stem from: 起源于。

20. 少数例外之一是,在一些文化中,白色被用来表示死亡,但这更可能代表着纯洁和完整的生命周期,而不是失去与悲伤。

21. nocturnal: (动物)夜间活动的;vulnerable: 脆弱的,易受伤的。

22. 这句话诙谐借用了《创世纪》中的一句话:神说,要有光,就有了光(And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light)。


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