Why Do We Prefer the Colors We Do?

by | May 29, 2018


“Spectrum II” by Ellsworth Kelly at the Saint Louis Art Museum

What is your favorite color? The most popular favorite color is blue. Here are the results of a survey of people in ten countries about their favorite color:


As for gender differences in color preference, here are the results of a survey conducted of American college students by a professor of sociology at University of Maryland about favorite colors:

A sample of 1,974 men and women were asked whether they preferred purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, or pink.

Similarly, a study by a designer at Microsoft found the following color preferences by gender of mostly Americans (but also includes responses from 140 other countries):


Both surveys (and others) found that both genders prefer blue but a larger proportion of men prefer blue than women. After blue, women tend to prefer purple, red and pink as compared to men who like green as their secondary color. Interesting.

So, why do we prefer the colors we do and why do females relatively tend to prefer more reddish hues and males more bluish?

There are a few leading theories.  One is a biological based model called the “cone-contrast model” that proposes our color preferences are hardwired in our physiology. The theory states that our color preferences evolved while humans were hunter-gatherers and females prefer redder colors because they were usually the “gatherers” and spotting fruits and vegetables against green foliage was important.  An issue with the cone-contrast theory is that it does not explain why males relatively prefer bluer hues and why blue is favored overall and does not address the cultural factors that influence color preference.

Another theory is that sociological variables lead women to prefer pink, purple and red more strongly than men and rejects a biological cause of color preference. For example, a study from 2011 found that very young children – around the age of one, showed no gender differences i in preferring blues vs. reds/pink. It was not until after age two that girls started to prefer pink and boys rejected pink. This is notable because it is between ages two and three that toddlers tend to become aware of gender and to begin to associate factors that defines gender. Other studies have argued against an evolutionary basis for color preference by noting that there is evidence that pink was not associated with girls and blue with boys until the late 19th century and prior to this point it was switched – pinks and reds were for boys and blue for girls. There is some evidence that blue was thought to be a more gentle color and more appropriate for girls. Further buttressing the sociological basis for gender color preference is a famous study from the University of Sussex about how adults treat babies dressed in different colors. In the study the exact same babies were dressed in pink sometimes and blue in others. According to an article by the BBC, “women treated the exact same babies differently depending on whether they were dressed in pink or blue. If the clothes were blue they assumed it was a boy, played more physical games with them and encouraged them to play with a squeaky hammer, whereas they would gently soothe the baby dressed in pink and choose a doll for them to play with.”

Another theory is the “ecological valence theory” that focuses less on gender differences and is a more universal theory of color preferences. This theory proposes “that an individual’s color preferences at a particular time are determined by their combined affective response to environmental objects and situations associated with each color. Accordingly, people should be attracted to colors associated with objects and situations to which they have positive reactions (e.g., blues with clear sky and clean water) and repulsed by colors associated with objects to which they have negative reactions (e.g., browns with feces and rotten fruit).” Source: An Ecological Valence Theory of Human Color Preferences

As for why we prefer blue, Karen Schloss, an author of the the Ecological Valence study stated: It turns out, if you look at all of the things that are associated with blue, they’re mostly positive. 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. 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. So the cool thing about this theory is that it can explain why color preferences differ between people—and why they change over time.

Moving on from theories of color preference, color is important to human behavior. From the Ecological Valence study: [Color] influences a wide spectrum of decisions people make on a regular basis, including the products they buy, the clothes they wear, the way they decorate their homes and offices, and how they design their personal and professional
websites, to name but a few examples.”

Colors can elicit an emotional response and in marketing, sales and even with respect to what you wear, colors can create a positive emotion for one person and can create a negative for another.  As such, the color of a company logo or the color of packaging may have an emotional effect on how a consumer feels about a product or service.  Here is one company’s attempt to classify consumer responses to logo colors:


From The Logo Company website


  1. A few years ago I was ask by my Grandkids what was my favorite color and I replied “Sky Blue Pink.” to which they said there was no such color. I pointed out the window to a setting sun reflecting off the clouds and the beautiful color across the evening sky. To this day I get phone calls saying “grandpa, go out and look at the Sky Blue Pink setting sun. You can choose a color if you want, but Sky Blue Pink remains the most beautiful color for me.

  2. Love Ellsworth Kelly’s work, all geometric and always using color !

  3. This is the first time that I have read about our affinity for blue. I prefer screen savers and backgrounds with blue. It soothes me. Inlike vlue as the default color. However something’s are too much in deep and vivid blue…like a dorm room.


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