Color Preferences Determined by Experience

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The findings may help explain why blue is pleasing to people everywhere, why Japanese women tend to like light colors, and why dark yellow is generally unappealing, among other trends.

THE GIST

- Our experiences with objects determine how we feel about the colors of those objects.

- There are general trends in color preferences across cultures, but wide differences among individuals.

- Understanding why we like the colors we do could help artists, designers and marketing companies.

Yellow or pink flowers? The green or blue sweater? From cars to furniture to iPods, we make decisions about color all the time. Now, scientists are starting to figure out why we like the hues we do.

It is our experiences that determine which colors we prefer, suggests a new study, which was the first to experimentally test the long-suspected idea that people like the colors of the things they like.

The findings may help explain why blue is pleasing to people everywhere, why Japanese women tend to like light colors, and why dark yellow is generally unappealing, among other trends.

On the flip side, the study also hints at why one woman might buy orange socks, while the next shopper picks brown -- in turn, offering tantalizing fodder for designers, artists and marketing experts.

"I might like purple more than you because my sister's bedroom was purple and I had positive experiences there," said Karen Schloss, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Your own personal preference is determined by all the entities you've encountered of that color and how much you liked them."

In their attempts to understand why people like certain colors, scientists have focused on evolution. The main theory is that we like colors that are tied to things that are healthy and promote survival.

A blue sky, for example, indicates calm weather, which might explain why blue tends to be a favored color across cultures. Dark yellows and oranges, on the other hand, invoke urine, feces, vomit and rotting food. As expected, there is usually a dip in preference for these hues in studies around the world.

Scientists have also predicted, with mixed results, a preference for red among women, who would've needed to spot red berries against green foliage in our ancestral hunter-gatherer societies.

Despite those general trends, there are wide-ranging differences among individuals about which colors they like. Schloss and colleague Stephen Palmer wanted to know why.

As part of a series of experiments, the researchers showed slide shows of colored objects to a group of participants. The images were biased, so that some people might see nice red things, like yummy strawberries, but unpleasant green images like slime. Others saw unpleasant red things like blood but nice green objects, like trees. Afterwards, the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people preferred whichever color had been linked to the positive images they saw, whether red or green.

In another preliminary study, the researchers found that Berkeley students who ranked highest in school spirit had the strongest preferences for blue and gold, their school's colors, and the most distaste for red and white, the colors of their rival Stanford.

Spirited Stanford students showed the opposite pattern, suggesting that social affiliations can influence which colors we like at different times in our lives.

"Their study is a really neat experiment to prove something that we have suspected for a long time," said Yazhu Ling, a vision scientists at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. She and colleagues established a theory that our systems for ranking colors are hardwired, even if our actual color preferences are malleable.

"You see loads of articles online about what color you like and what that says about what kind of person you are," she added. "There is not actually scientific support for that. But it shows that people are generally interested in the subtle differences between people and what has driven that. Color provides a tool to understand why we like some things more than others."