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.”