Odor–color associations differ with verbal descriptors for odors: A comparison of three linguistically diverse groups
de Valk JM., Wnuk E., Huisman JLA., Majid A.
People appear to have systematic associations between odors and colors. Previous research has emphasized the perceptual nature of these associations, but little attention has been paid to what role language might play. It is possible odor–color associations arise through a process of labeling; that is, participants select a descriptor for an odor and then choose a color accordingly (e.g., banana odor → “banana” label → yellow). If correct, this would predict odor–color associations would differ as odor descriptions differ. We compared speakers of Dutch (who overwhelmingly describe odors by referring to the source; e.g., smells like banana) with speakers of Maniq and Thai (who also describe odors with dedicated, abstract smell vocabulary; e.g., musty), and tested whether the type of descriptor mattered for odor–color associations. Participants were asked to select a color that they associated with an odor on two separate occasions (to test for consistency), and finally to label the odors. We found the hunter-gatherer Maniq showed few, if any, consistent or accurate odor–color associations. More importantly, we found the types of descriptors used to name the smells were related to the odor–color associations. When people used abstract smell terms to describe odors, they were less likely to choose a color match, but when they described an odor with a source-based term, their color choices more accurately reflected the odor source, particularly when the odor source was named correctly (e.g., banana odor → yellow). This suggests language is an important factor in odor–color cross-modal associations.