By the 1920s, researchers were just about ready to throw in the towel regarding that straightforward question, “What’s your favorite color?” People’s answers appeared far too idiosyncratic to study in any substantive way. But as statistical tools and color standardization improved during the decades that followed, a pattern slowly but surely began to emerge.
Everyone liked blue.
Studies as early as 1941 indicated that bluish hues were the most preferred; just this summer, the world’s favorite color was declared to be a particular shade of greenish-blue (or was it bluish-green?) based on a 30,000-person survey canvassing 100 countries. It’s a predilection that isn’t limited to a particular geography or gender or even political affiliation—as it turns out, even Republicans generally prefer blue, too.
While these studies and surveys went a long way towards describing the distribution of people’s preferences across the color wheel, another mystery remained: Why did such preferences exist in the first place?
According to research conducted by psychologists Stephen E. Palmer and Karen Schloss over the last seven years, the answer isn’t found in our DNA. Their study, published in 2010, posits that a person’s preference for a given color can be determined by averaging out how much that person likes all of the objects they associate with that color. Your inclination for orange, for example, depends on how you feel about pumpkins and traffic cones and Cheetos, among other things; for green, it varies according to your thoughts on grass and American dollar bills and broccoli.
“It turns out, if you look at all of the things that are associated with blue, they're mostly positive,” explains Schloss, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s really hard to think of negative blue things. A lot of things that we kind of think of as blue and bad aren’t really that blue.” Blue mold, for example, actually tends towards green; bruises are often more purple or yellow than they are blue.
Instead, we associate blue largely with the sky and water (as well as more mundane, but neutral-to-positive, items such as ballpoint pens and blue jeans), raising the average preference for blue higher than the remainder of the rainbow.
What’s more, those associations aren’t limited to a certain region of the globe. “Clear sky and clean water especially are things that we all experience universally,” Schloss says. “No matter where you are in the world, if it’s a clear, sunny day when it’s nice to be outside, the sky is blue. And water that’s clear is going to be bluish. That’s not to say that there aren’t cultural differences, because there are, but this prevalence of positive blue things seems to be somewhat consistent.”
This theory also sheds light on another pattern that’s emerged from the study of color preferences. Just as blues always come out on top in surveys, dark yellows almost always end up at the bottom. “These mustard-y, olive-y, vomit-y sort of colors, they’ve got some things that are positively associated with them,” Schloss notes, “but they have a lot of negative associations, too—biological waste and lots of gross things that I won’t go into right now.”
Schloss and Palmer’s theory also allows for variations between individuals—something that couldn’t be explained if preferences were hardwired into our DNA. Because, while the majority of people do prefer blue, there’s also a significant chunk of the population who most like red or green.
“The critical part of this is that it’s not any one thing that predicts preferences for color, it’s the summary of all the things that we’ve experienced in our lifetime,” Schloss says. “So the cool thing about this theory is that it can explain why color preferences differ between people—and why they change over time.”
In a 2013 study, the pair attempted to alter people’s preferences by intentionally forming new associations for red and green. Half the participants were presented with 10 positive red objects (like roses and ripe strawberries) and 10 negative green objects (like snot and vomit); the others with negative reds (bloody eyeballs and open wounds) and positive greens (trees and kiwi). It worked for both test groups, although not permanently—the changes had faded by the next day.
Schloss has also found that color preferences vary depending on the time of year, pegged to the changing of the seasons. Typically, the colors of autumn—golden yellows, browns, dark reds—are the least-liked on the color wheel. But surveys conducted in the fall reveal an increased preference for these dark, warm shades, when participants most closely associate them with festive things like hayrides and pumpkin patches (rather than injury or excrement).
And tastes can shift even more rapidly. On Election Day, for example, Republicans’ party-based preference for red spikes (during the rest of the year, their favorite color is actually overwhelmingly blue—surprisingly, in higher numbers than blue-state Democrats).
“I think the notion of a ‘favorite color’ makes it seem like it could be some stable trait in an individual,” says Schloss. “What we’re finding is, yes, there might be some stable aspects of color preferences. But they are also these dynamic things that reflect changes in people’s preferences and the things that are on their minds at a given moment in time.”