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Color-odor associations are not universal, scientists claim

Posted July 11, 2014
Picture: Jardin a Sainte-Adresse. Author: Claude Monet. Year: 1866⁄1877. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Picture: Jardin a Sainte-Adresse. Author: Claude Monet. Year: 1866⁄1877. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Previous studies revealed that people tend associate particular odors with particular colors. For instance, it was demonstrated that the flavor of strawberries is matched to red and caramel-taste aroma is associated with brown color. However, scientists disagree about the nature of this interesting phenomenon. Is it universal, or is it culture-specific?

A recent study conducted by researchers working at the U.S., European and Asian universities provides evidence proving the existence of significant cultural variation.

What is the nature of this correspondence? The scholars have three versions explaining color-odor relationship: structural, statistical and semantic. “Structural correspondences can occur due to the interplay of neural correlates. Statistical correspondences are learned, and occur when two stimulus dimensions are routinely correlated in the environment. Semantically mediated correspondences arise due to language, such as ‘low’ being used to refer both to elevation and pitch,” they explain.

The scientists think that if cross-modal correspondences between colors and scents are universal, they probably are not semantic. But if cultural heterogeneity exist, the structural explanation is incorrect. The behavior of people from differences ethnic backgrounds was tested. More precisely, Dutch, Netherlands-residing-Chinese, German, Malay, Malaysian-Chinese, and US residents participated in this experiment.

The study showed that the association between flavor and color is pretty homogeneous within cultural groups, but significant variations among cultures exist. This finding has important implications for our understanding of observed color-odor associations. “This pattern argues against the notion that color-odor associations are structural, as structural correspondences would be largely universal. Instead, the results favor statistical or semantically-mediated learning of color-odor correlations,” the researchers claim.

Responses of Americans exhibit most similarities to those exhibited by people from other cultures. In contrast, Malaysian participants were the most distinctive ones. However, the scientists do not know what causes underly these divergences. “These differences could be due to patterns in dietary habits, the role of fragrance in each society, or other social factors,” the scholars say.

Article:Levitan CA, Ren J, Woods AT, Boesveldt S, Chan JS, et al. (2014) Cross-Cultural Color-Odor Associations. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101651. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101651, source link.

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