Colour and the Brain (part 2 of 3) – Colour Preference

Posted by on Mar 25, 2017 in Blog Post, Neuromarketing

Imagine a bottle of dark brown and olive green liquid.
Now imagine a bottle of light blue liquid.

Which would you prefer to drink?

Most people would answer the light blue liquid. And in this blog post we will attempt to explain why.

Lets start by asking: What is Colour?

Colour is our brain’s interpretation of light.
Our eyes focus light through the lens onto the retina.
There, rods and cones (light-sensitive photoreceptor cells) absorb the light.
Cones are essentially what perceive colour, and are sensitive to wavelengths of visible light which we perceive as red green and blue.
Our neuronal nerve cells (the optic nerve) then make adjustments, compensate for errors, and compare signals before transmitting information to the brain (including information about the amount of green or red, blue or yellow, and brightness).
The optic nerve consists of retinal ganglion cell axons and support cells. Most of the axons go to the lateral geniculate nucleus where the information is then sent to the visual cortex, but other axons go to other parts of the brain such as the pretectal nucleus, and the suprachiasmatic nucleus.

Essentially what this means is that the information our eyes generate from light is not only transmitted to the part of our brain that gives us the perception of vision, but are also transported to other areas that control things such as sleep cycles, reflexes, and possibly emotion.

So why do people have colour preferences?

One argument for colour preference examines biological adaptations due to evolution.  This argument [see Could sex difference…]  is based on research that shows men prefer blue and green while women prefer purple, pink and white.  The basic idea here is that humans start with a preference for colours that represent aspects of the world that impact their survival.  Thus humans develop a preference for blue, as it becomes associated with clear skies and clean water.  However, the argument claims historically, males tended to become hunters, and females tended to become gatherers.  As a result, females developed adaptations to help them find ripe fruit in green foliage.  This results in a preference for purple, pink, white, and similar colours.

In 2010, Palmer and Schloss of the University of California, Berkeley, took this argument to another level and argued for something called ecological valence theory or EVT [see An ecological valence….]. EVT is based on the previously discussed idea that human colour preference is adaptive.  In other words, ancient humans who were better able to differentiate colours that look good from ones that look bad, were more likely to survive.  However, the EVT model does not only look at long-term evolutionary adaptations, but also short term life-time adaptations.  Put another way, EVT argues that our colour preference comes from genetic adaptations over 1000s of years, as well as an individuals’ life-experiences with colours.  So if a child has good experiences associated with orange, they will have a tendency to prefer orange more than someone who has had no experiences with it.

Palmer and Schloss’ experiments to demonstrate their EVT theory procured some useful results [see Why we prefer… for a summary of the experiments] . Dark orange (brown) and dark yellow (olive) were noted to be disliked considerably more by individuals than other oranges and yellows.  Dark greens and dark reds on the other hand were significantly more preferred than other greens and reds.  Further in general, people preferred brightly saturated colours over the same colours muted or in pastel.  These experiments resulted in a colour wheel which essentially ranked the average human preference for colours, and showed that we base our valuations of colour on objects associated with them.

Palmer and Schloss’ Ecological Valence Theory may currently be the best explanation for our colour preferences. However, it suggests that color-preference is partly based on culture, differing worldwide due to specific colour-associations in specific cultures, as well as differences across individuals.  Further, there has been evidence showing that it may also change alongside environmental shifts (referring to the day-to-day changes in one’s life), such as changes in the seasons (like summer shifting to autumn) [See Seasonal variations…].  In essence, this means that colour preference is complex, and requires consideration of numerous factors.
Part 3 of 3 will discuss ways to apply these ideas to practical e-marketing.

Sources Cited / Further Research

Could sex difference in color preference and its personality correlates fit into social theories? Let Chinese university students tell you – Wei He, Yingchun Zhang, et al. – (requires purchase)

An ecological valence theory of human color preference – Stepehn E. Palmer, Karen B. Schloss –

Why we prefer certain colours – R Douglas Fields –

Seasonal Variations in Color Preference – Karen B Schloss, et al. –;jsessionid=0683E7B9256FA1A73CBFC410D06C5448.f04t04

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