August 2009
Volume 9, Issue 8
Vision Sciences Society Annual Meeting Abstract  |   August 2009
An ecological valence theory of human color preferences
Author Affiliations
  • Karen B. Schloss
    Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley
  • Stephen E. Palmer
    Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley
Journal of Vision August 2009, Vol.9, 358. doi:
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      Karen B. Schloss, Stephen E. Palmer; An ecological valence theory of human color preferences. Journal of Vision 2009;9(8):358.

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      © ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)

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We studied color preferences for 37 colors: 8 hues x 4 brightness/saturation levels plus five grays. Average color preference for saturated, desaturated, and light colors was a relatively smooth function of hue with a strong peak at blue and a trough at chartreuse. The hue function differed for dark colors: dark orange and yellow were much less preferred, and dark red and green were somewhat more preferred. Males preferred saturated colors to desaturated ones, whereas females preferred desaturated colors to saturated ones. Male-female differences were highly correlated with rated activeness/passiveness of colors (r=0.73), with males preferring active colors. People with greater color expertise preferred chromatic colors more than novices, but both preferred achromatic colors equally. Despite enormous individual differences, hue preference was relatively stable within observers across brightness/saturation levels (average r=0.35). Hue preference was also relatively stable across contextual objects: walls, trim, couches, pillows, shirts/blouses, ties/scarves (average r=0.65). A colorimetric model based on yellowness/blueness, saturation and brightness/darkness explained 60% of the group variance, whereas an emotional-association model based on calmness, courageousness, and frustratedness of colors explained 79%. We also tested an ecological-valence model, hypothesizing that people like colors that remind them of positive things (sky, trees) and dislike colors that remind them of negative things (vomit, feces). We asked participants to name all the objects that came to mind for each presented color and later obtained ratings of how positive/negative they felt about each object. We then weighted the average valence for each object by the frequency with which it was reported for each color. Color preference was strongly related to this weighted object valence measure (r=0.83), suggesting that color preference may be analogous to taste in food: a heuristic designed to help guide us toward potentially beneficial objects and situations and away from potentially harmful ones.

Schloss, K. B. Palmer, S. E. (2009). An ecological valence theory of human color preferences [Abstract]. Journal of Vision, 9(8):358, 358a,, doi:10.1167/9.8.358. [CrossRef]
 NSF grant BCS-0745820, Google.

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