OPEN Cognitive research: principles and implications | 3 Mar 2018
KB Schloss, L Lessard, CS Walmsley and K Foley
People interpret abstract meanings from colors, which makes color a useful perceptual feature for visual communication. This process is complicated, however, because there is seldom a one-to-one correspondence between colors and meanings. One color can be associated with many different concepts (one-to-many mapping) and many colors can be associated with the same concept (many-to-one mapping). We propose that to interpret color-coding systems, people perform assignment inference to determine how colors map onto concepts. We studied assignment inference in the domain of recycling. Participants saw images of colored but unlabeled bins and were asked to indicate which bins they would use to discard different kinds of recyclables and trash. In Experiment 1, we tested two hypotheses for how people perform assignment inference. The local assignment hypothesis predicts that people simply match objects with their most strongly associated color. The global assignment hypothesis predicts that people also account for the association strengths between all other objects and colors within the scope of the color-coding system. Participants discarded objects in bins that optimized the color-object associations of the entire set, which is consistent with the global assignment hypothesis. This sometimes resulted in discarding objects in bins whose colors were weakly associated with the object, even when there was a stronger associated option available. In Experiment 2, we tested different methods for encoding color-coding systems and found that people were better at assignment inference when color sets simultaneously maximized the association strength between assigned color-object parings while minimizing associations between unassigned pairings. Our study provides an approach for designing intuitive color-coding systems that facilitate communication through visual media such as graphs, maps, signs, and artifacts.
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