Theories of Colour Preference

By: Anna Franklin

Whereas early studies of colour preference have mostly been concerned with documenting what colours people like and dislike, over the last ten years science has been concerned with why people like some colours more than others.

In many ways, colour preference is a strange phenomenon — why should people have strong feelings about simple patches of colour? There are currently four theories, which each have some supporting evidence.

  1. Colour preference comes from our interaction with coloured objects:
    This theory, termed ‘Ecological Valence Theory’, proposes that we like and dislike colours to the extent that we like or dislike the objects associated with those colours.
  2. Colour preference is due to how colour is encoded by sensory mechanisms in the eye and brain:
    This theory proposes that certain colours are more likely to be liked than others because of the biology of how colour is encoded by the eye and the brain.
  3. Some colours are liked more because they are easier to process, and to communicate about:
    This theory relates to a broader one in the field of aesthetics, which proposes that human beings like visual stimuli such as shapes, colours, and faces which are easy for the mind to process, memorise, talk, and think about.
  4. Colour preference can be predicted by a colour’s attributes:
    This theory argues that colour preference can be predicted by attributes associated with a colour such as how ‘clean or dirty’, ‘warm or cool’, ‘active or passive’, or ‘heavy or light’ a colour appears to be.

While each of these theories has some success in accounting for general and common patterns of colour preference, they are less effective at explaining why individuals differ in their colour preferences, and accounting for the high variability in what colours people like and dislike.

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Professor Anna Franklin is a leading expert in colour psychology. She is a Director of the Sussex Colour Group in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex in England.

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