Although the question “What’s your favorite color?” conveys a sentiment that’s distinctly relatable and universal, the simplicity of this question belies its nuanced underpinnings. At the turn of the twentieth century, many scientists postulated that color preference was too idiosyncratic to be studied in the lab. However, new research suggests that color preference may have to do with a person’s affective response to objects of a certain color as well as personal experiences. This prediction has been coined ecological valence theory.
Despite substantial variability in color preferences among individuals, testing has shown that there are patterns with respect to color preference. For instance, some research has shown that people tend to prefer color with deeper saturation. Furthermore, other research has shown that many people prefer blue and relatively few people like yellow or green.
Ecological valence theory can best be explained using some examples. A person may prefer the color orange because she associates this color with things that she likes, such as navel oranges or baby carrots. Conversely, the reason why many people dislike the color brown may be because brown is associated with feces, dirtiness, decay and death. Alternatively, a person may prefer a certain color because of positive personal experiences. For example, maybe a man likes purple because as a child he fondly remembers being picked up after school in his dad’s purple Corvette.
Another prevailing hypothesis explaining color preference has to do with biology. Color preference may be rooted in individual differences in cone composition. Cones are photoreceptor cells located in the retina which enable color vision. Differences in cone composition could possibly yield differences in threshold sensitivities to certain colors thus resulting in variable color preferences.
In an informative article titled, “Ecological influences on individual differences in color preference,” (link is external) Karen Schloss and co-authors examined color preference and color dislike using sets of objects that were associated with certain colors. Their results support the ecological valence theory and fail to support biological hypotheses explaining color preference.
On a final note, ecological valence theory may be rooted in evolution. In other words, people like certain colors because objects associated with these colors are beneficial to them and promote well-being. For instance, a person may like blue because she associates the color with clean drinking water or fresh smog-free air. Thus, she may be compelled to approach blue objects. On the other hand, she may dislike yellow objects because of their association with bodily waste like urine or pus and be compelled to avoid yellow objects.