Palmer and Schloss. “An ecological valence theory of human color preference” PNAS, 2010.
Sci will admit that she didn’t really know all that much about color preference theory until she read this paper. And that until she read this paper…she thought a lot of it was silly.
Also, she doesn’t have a favorite color. That might have something to do with it. Can someone have a favorite color palette instead?
Anyway, let’s talk color preference theory.
One thing Sci really liked about this paper was the way the authors laid out the background in the discussion. Concise, well worded. No space wasted. Hot.
Anyway, the two big theories an color preference right now are the biological adaptation theory, and the emotion theory. And the big question they address is not “WHAT” is your favorite color, but WHY.
Basically, when you ask men and women for their color preferences, you get certain similarities and differences. Here’s what we’re going to be talking about:
This is a common color block used in some types of color preference testing. Here the S quadrant is saturated, the L quadrant is light, the D quadrant is dark, and the M quadrant is muted. You will notice that the same colors are represented in each quadrant in different ways. As for the colors themselves, the four corners are red, yellow, green, and blue, and the four sides are each of their color bisectors (the color in between the two corners) which are orange, chartreuse, cyan, and purple.
So, when you ask people which of these colors they prefer, both men and women prefer colors closer to blue and violet than those close to yellow and green. However, women tend to prefer colors closer to reds than men, who prefer colors closer to blues. This difference has occupied the minds of many scientists for a while, and several theories have come out.
1) The signal theory: this is the idea that certain colors portray certain signals (like yellow meaning a wasp, while red means a ripe berry). Colors that are attractive to us are those which signal “approach” while ones we don’t like signal “avoidance”. This theory has been losing ground, because it doesn’t tend to match too much with data on color preference.
2) The biological adaptation theory: this is the idea that women needed to like red more because they were doing all the gathering early in our society and had to be able to pick out red berries very readily, and therefore they prefer red. Sci will go into this a little more later.
3) The emotional theory: this is the idea that certain colors evoke certain emotions, like activity, passivity, heaviness, or warmth. However, no one really has a theory on how certain emotions would arise from certain colors.
And 4) The theory proposed in this paper, the ecological theory. The authors here propose that humans prefer colors like blues and greens because those colors and ecologically healthy (blue skies, clean water, healthy vegetation), and do not prefer colors like brown because it’s associated with stuff that is ecologically unhealthy (like crap and things that are rotting). This is somewhat like the biological theory in that they are both adaptive. Red berries are more healthy than green ones (probably), and clean water is more healthy than not, thus relating color preference to survival. It relates slightly to the emotional theory in that certain colors “look good” while others “look bad”.
The authors decided to test their theory, and got a bunch of people together to look at colors. They ended up with the same kinds of colors preference that the previous studies had shown. They ALSO had the participants look at the names of objects (each of which was associated with a particular color) and rate them positively or negatively. Not only that, they showed the participants a color, and then had them write down all the things that they could associate with that color (like “apples”, “feces”, or “grapes”). They then tallied this all together, and looked at the color preferences, as well as what people associated the colors they looked at with.
They got a good correlation between favored colors and favored things. So for instance, red with cherries or apples, brown with feces. And their theory appears (they say) to fit the data better than other theories to date.
Why is this important, you may ask. Well it’s very important to people who do marketing. Observe the stark color differences between magazines targeted toward men:
(The first thing Sci noted about this picture is that if they’d put the Carolina guy next to the Duke guy, it would have looked like the Carolina guy was smacking the Duke guy in the face. Sci can’t help but think that this would have (a) generated a ton of press and (b) been really hilarious)
(Taylor Swift, honey, let’s talk about your eyebrows. Those things look like they could boomerang a kangaroo at 200 paces. You’re too young for such things, and I bet your natural eyebrows are just fine. You should try them sometime. Love, Sci.)
Note the blues in the Sports Illustrated, vs the pinks in the Self magazine (the uniforms on the players are probably not coincidental either). Knowing color preferences on average for women and men can go a good way to selling magazines, and coloring, and heck, maybe even food (packaging on food marketed to women tends to be a lot redder and pinker than packaging on food marketed to men).
Sci isn’t really sure what to think of this article. Their interpretation does appear to fit the data, but as the authors themselves point out, there are a LOT of caveats. All the people in the study were American, so this isn’t humans preferences, it’s American preferences. Sci really wonders if people across cultures and around the world show similar color preference. In addition (and particularly important to Sci) they don’t know what role socialization plays in color preference. Sci thinks it probably plays a very big role indeed, and seriously complicates the issue. After all, many women are raised from the time they are very small on reds, pinks, and purples, while boys are raised on blues. This is going to have a pretty strong effect on your color preferences.
Not only that, there’s the association between colors and things. Do you like the color because it evokes the thing you like (like cherries) or do you like the thing because it evokes the color? If you just like cherries, are you more likely to like red? If colors always indicated the value of a thing, things like chocolate and coffee, which are similar to things like feces in color, wouldn’t come out well at all.
But still, it’s not like the other theories are much better. After all, the idea of some colors signaling approach and others signaling avoidance doesn’t really work very well. Many colors which signal things that are good to eat (bananas) also signal nastiness (wasps), and vice versa. The biological adaptation theory may explain a little, but early in evolution men and women both did plenty of gathering. In addition, women’s preference for red may be very strongly socialized. As for the emotional theory, Sci personally thinks this theory sounds like hooey, but she’ll also admit she doesn’t know a lot about it. But really, the emotional aspect of a color would, in my mind, stem from something else which signals its salience. I feel like the emotional aspect doesn’t scratch the surface. So of all these, the ecological theory seems like it might be a better contender, with colors we like indicating good things in the environment. But still, it doesn’t cover everything. Blue can mean good weather and good water, and green can mean lush vegetation, but green can also mean rot. Brown can mean decay, but it can also mean fertile soil, or well done meat. Red can mean ripe berries or health, but it can also (on humans) mean illness.
So the reality, Sci thinks, is probably a lot more complicated than any of these theories suggest.
Palmer, S., & Schloss, K. (2010). An ecological valence theory of human color preference Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (19), 8877-8882 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0906172107