Q: It seems like everyone has a favorite color, but what determines the colors that people prefer? Is it inborn or learned?
A: There is a theory in psychology called “Ecological Valence Theory” or EVT. This theory states that our preference for a certain color is determined by our average liking for everything we associate with that color. On this theory, we don’t prefer colors on their own, we like colors because they remind us of things we like (and we dislike colors that remind us of things we don’t like).
- There are some universally-liked colors (based on previous research). Across cultures, people tend to like blue and dislike brown. Is this a coincidence?
- Maybe not. EVT suggests that our color preferences are based on the things we associate with that color. People all over the world notice how beautiful the clear sky and clean water are, and these are blue. Feces and rotten foods are brown and people all over the world tend to dislike these colors.
- So our preferences for colors may be based on our experiences with objects and things with those colors!
- Can this be tested? Some researchers at the University of California – Berkeley sought to test this theory by measuring people’s preferences for colors associated with their academic institutions. The results were published in 2011 in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
The researchers gathered two groups of people: 57 participants from Berkeley, and 46 participants from Stanford.
As many Californians can tell you from first-hand experience, there is quite a rivalry between these two schools. The rivalry began all the way back in 1899!
All participants were screened for possible color-blindness.
The official colors for Berkeley are blue and gold.
The official colors for Stanford are red and white.
Participants were shown a number of colors in random order and were asked to mark their preference for those colors. The main colors were:
- Achromatic (grayscale)
- Berkeley Blue
- Berkeley Gold
- Stanford Red
- Stanford White
Notice that they had the exact shades of blue, gold, and red (and I guess white) that are associated with the respective universities among the other colors.
They also adjusted the values of each color, such that each color was presented in a saturated, light, muted, and dark version.
For instance, they presented a saturated yellow, light yellow, muted yellow, and dark yellow to all participants.
Additionally, the researchers asked participants to rate how strongly they liked their universities.
If color preferences occur randomly for people, then there shouldn’t be any particular preferences or differences between the people from Berkeley and Stanford. Is that what they found?
Nope. As you can probably guess, they found a significant difference between the preferences of the two groups.
Berkeley students had a stronger preference toward the Berkeley colors (especially Stanford gold).
Stanford students had a stronger preference toward the Stanford colors (especially Stanford red).
To show that this wasn’t a fluke, the researchers also ran a different statistical test to see whether “school spirit” changed the effect.
The researchers found that, generally, the more strongly a person felt positive feelings about their school, the more strongly they preferred their school colors.
They also found some supporting evidence that the more “school spirit” they had for their own school, the more strongly they disliked the colors from their rival school.
- The researchers re-ran the same study, only this time, they showed colors in pairs.
- This would include the pairs of their rivals (blue/gold and red/white).
- This time the effect was even stronger:
- People from Berkeley strongly preferred Berkeley color pairs (blue/gold) and those from Stanford strongly preferred Stanford color pairs (red/white).
- Higher “school spirit” was associated with stronger preferences (both a preference for one’s own school colors and a dislike for one’s rival school colors)
- This is evidence that preference for some colors is not inborn. We learn what colors we like based on our preference for things we associate with those colors.
- The stronger our associations, the stronger our preferences.
- There are indeed some possible inborn color effects (such as the effects associated with the color red), but some color preferences are learned.
Schloss, K. B., Poggesi, R. M., & Palmer, S. E. (2011). Effects of university affiliation and “school spirit” on color preferences: Berkeley versus Stanford. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 498-504. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21380587