Misconceptions About Colour Categories

  • Christoph WitzelEmail author


The origin of colour categories and their relationship to colour perception have been the prime example for testing the influence of language on perception and thought (Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) and more generally for investigating the biological, ecological and cultural determination of human cognition (nature-nurture debate). These themes are central to a broad range of disciplines, including vision research, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, developmental science, cultural anthropology, linguistics, computer science, and philosophy. Unfortunately, though, it has been tacitly taken for granted that the conceptual assumptions and methodological practices from the dawn of empirical research on colour categorisation are the gold standard for current colour category research. Here, we show that these assumptions and practices are obsolete and flawed and have led to four fundamental and widespread misconceptions about colour categorisation: 1.) that colour perception is inherently categorical; 2.) that English Basic Colour Terms correspond to universal categories that are the end point of a fixed evolutionary sequence; 3.) that the prototypes of English basic colour terms are perceptually salient and qualify as focal colours; and 4.) that colour category research essentially revolves around the universalism-realism debate. State-of-the-art research on colour categorisation provides new, more sophisticated approaches and allows for rectifying those four statements. At the same time, some of the questions underlying those statements are not convincingly answered yet and constitute major challenges to future research. The critical considerations on colour categorisation may be transferred to research on other kinds of perceptual categorisation to inspire new, more general research questions.



I am grateful to Paul Kay, Delwin Lindsey, Simon Cropper, and Kasia Siuda-Krzywicka for helpful comments on the manuscript, and to J. Kevin O’Regan for suggesting the title of this article. This work was supported by DFG Sonderforschungsbereich SFB TRR 135.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Allgemeine PsychologieJustus-Liebig-Universität GießenGiessenGermany

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