An ecological valence theory of human color preference

Posted by Siru Heiskanen on Jul 17, 2017

Authors: Palmer, S. E. and Schloss, K. B.

Year of publication: 2010

Publication: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(19), pp.8877–8882.

Keywords: plants, biophilia,

Link to publication

This article (2010) aims to explain why people prefer some colors over others with an ecological valence theory. Color preference is an important aspect of visual experience which influences human behaviour. Even though the colors of modern artifacts (such as clothes or cars) are arbitrary, they have signal values that have been born throughout our evolutionary history to cause us to either approach or avoid them (e.g. blue for clear sky and water; and brown and grey for rotten food): people are more likely to survive and reproduce successfully if they are attracted to objects whose colors “look good” and avoid objects whose colors “look bad”. Color preference is wired into the human visual system from evolutionary selection. In addition to inherent preferences, individuals learn to like certain colors during their lifetime the more enjoyment and positive affect an individual receives from experiences with objects of a given color.

48 participants rated 32 chromatic colors in terms of how much the participant liked the color using a line-mark rating scale that was converted to numbers ranging from −100 to +100 with a neutral zero-point. In a object association test, 74 participants were shown a color and wrote down descriptions of it, which were then categorized. Those categories were then shown to 98 other participants who rated how appealing they were found to be. A third group of 31 people then shown each of the descriptions together with the color to which that object had been associated with, and were asked to rate the strength of the match.

The study found, that:

  • Dark orange (brown) and dark yellow (olive) were significantly less preferred than other oranges and yellows [F(1,47) = 11.74, 41.06, P < 0.001]
  • Dark red and dark green were more preferred than other reds and greens [F(1,47) = 15.41, 6.37, P < 0.001, 0.05]
  • The preference of the color increased significantly when it was associated with a desirable object (e.g. green trees and grassy fields compared to green mold)

Color preferences can be influenced by experience, and object preference causes color preference. The associated object influences the preference of the color, therefore e.g. color green might not be preferred if it is not associated with an otherwise desirable object, such as plants which often evoke positive emotions.


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