Do your experiences, or your biology, decide your favorite?

Although the question “what’s your favorite color?” conveys a sentiment that’s distinctly relatable and universal, its simplicity belies its nuanced underpinnings. At the turn of the 20th century, many researchers postulated that color preference was too idiosyncratic for study 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 the ecological valence theory.

Despite substantial variability in color preference among individuals, testing has shown that there are patterns with respect to color preference. For instance, some research suggests that people tend to prefer color with deeper saturation. Other research has shown that while many people prefer blue, relatively few favor yellow or yellow-green.

Naveed Saleh, MD, MS,Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, is a full-time writer and editor. He attained a bachelor's degree in biology from Cornell University, a medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine, and a master's degree in science journalism (with an informal concentration in psychology) from Texas A&M University in College Station. Naveed has written and edited for a variety of national publications as well as prominent physicians and researchers. Naveed was a contributing writer at The New Physician magazine, where he performed a professional internship and won a 2010 Apex Award for Health & Medical Writing. Naveed is currently the Verywell Medical Treatments Expert and Verywell Trends Reporter. At Verywell, he covers the newest in medical treatments, peer-reviewed research and medical trends.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

We can best explain ecological valence theory 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, many people may dislike the color brown because it is associated with feces, dirtiness, decay, or death. Alternately, a person may prefer a certain color because of positive personal experiences—a man may like purple because he fondly remembers his dad picking him up after school in his 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, resulting in variable color preferences.

In an informative article, “Ecological influences on individual differences in color preference,” Karen Schloss and co-authors examined color preference and color dislike using sets of objects that they associated with certain colors. Their results support the ecological valence theory—and fail to support biological hypotheses explaining color preference.

A final note: Ecological valence theory may be rooted in evolution. In other words, people may like certain colors because objects associated with these colors are beneficial to them and promote their 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 feel the urge 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 so avoid yellow objects.

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