The perception of color

Introduction Click here
Physics of color Click here
Color preferences Click here
Explanations of color preferences Click here
Summary Click here
References Click here


Of relevance to perception, we examine the subject of color, we examine the subject of color, which is a significant factor in human perception and the enjoyment of landscapes. Without color the appreciation of sunsets, of autumn colors, of azure blue sea, of flowers and blossoms would be diminished substantially. But in addition, color provides survival enhancing information about the environment (e.g. by distinguishing between ripe and unripe fruit) (Padgham & Saunders, 1975). Given that many species of animals lack color vision yet survive, it is curious what purpose color plays other than aesthetic.

Physics of color

Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) first observed the color spectrum when he held a prism up to light from the sun. Rainbows provide a natural alternative where the raindrops serve as tiny prisms which split the light. The color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, comprise differing wavelengths of visible light, each bent slightly differently by the prism (Figure 1). Each color grades gradually into the next. Black, white and grey have no hue and are neutral or achromatic colors, while colors with hue are called chromatic colors.

Figure 1 Wavelengths of Visible Light Spectrum

Color has three psychological attributes: hue, saturation and brightness.

  • Hue is the normal meaning of color (e.g. a red rose, a blue sea).
  • Brightness or value is the lightness of a color or its light intensity. Achromatic colors vary only in brightness, (e.g. ranging from black (minimum brightness) through to white (maximum brightness).
  • Saturation or chroma describes the strength, richness or vividness of the hue ranging from intense and highly saturated through to hues of low and weak saturation. It also describes the purity of color – the extent to which it is pure chromatic color without the addition of any achromatic colors. The addition of achromatic reduces saturation. It is determined by the extent to which the color differs from a neutral color of the same value (e.g. starting with grey and adding a hue will gradually increase the chroma and its vividness). A view with areas shaded from the sun contains both rich saturated hues (i.e. sunlit areas) and subdued hues of low saturation (i.e. shaded areas).

Color preferences

The influence of color on preferences has been researched by psychologists since the late nineteenth century (This resumé of historical research is based on the reviews by Eysenck, 1941, and Ball, 1965). The earliest definitive study was by a German researcher, J. Cohn in 1894 who could find no general color preference. Later researchers, Dorcus, 1926 and von Allesch, 1924, supported Cohn, von Allesch despairing of finding any consistent reaction to colors.

Walton, Guilford & Guilford (1933) reviewed data on color preferences that had been collected annually from 1279 university students at the University of Nebraska from 1910 to 1930 except for the gap 1920-28. They found a common basis of feeling for different colors (Figure 2). The highest preferences were for red and blue which may account for their prevalence in national flags. Yellow and orange hues were at the bottom of the rankings.

Fig 2
Walton, Guilford & Guilford, 1933    Figure 2 Affective preference for colors – in ascending order

Cohn also reported a general preference for saturated colors, a finding supported by many other researchers, although Titchener (1901) believed that some observers preferred saturated colors while others preferred unsaturated colors. Of the characteristics, hue, tint (brightness) and chroma, Guildford (1933) found hue to be the most important and the others of secondary importance. Some researchers have found differences in color preference according to gender (e.g. women prefer red to blue, men prefer blue to red). However, after examining several thousand cases, Garth (1931) concluded that the “color sequences between the two sexes are about the same.”

Table 1 Average Rankings of Color Preferences

Table 1
Eysenck, 1941

In view of the conflicting evidence from previous research, Eysenck (1941) conducted further experiments and critically reviewed the previous research. He found that the agreement between rankings of colors is as high as agreement between tests of intelligence, that some prefer saturated colors and others unsaturated colors, and that there were no gender differences (although women appear to slightly prefer yellow over orange). Given that von Allesch had concluded from his work that the results were too variable to say that there was any clear color preference, Eysenck subjected von Allesch’s results to statistical analysis. He concluded that, in fact, von Allesch’s results were essentially identical with my own, both as regards the amount of agreement between the subjects, and as regards the nature of the factors determining the judgement of the subjects.

Fig 3
Eysenck, 1941        Figure 3 Color Rankings by Gender

Based on the findings of various experiments from other researchers, Eysenck derived the rankings shown in Table 1. This was based upon a total of 21,060 subjects. Figure 3 compares the color rankings of men and women and shows that there is very little difference, Eysenck reporting a correlation of 0.95. Yellow is slightly preferred over orange by women and orange over yellow by men.

Walton, Guilford and Guilford (1933) data on color preferences of university students found considerable variation over time for each hue (Figure 4). They found slightly greater fluctuations over time for females than for males. The results indicate, for example, that preferences for red decreased continuously from 1910 to 1918 and then rose again in the late 1920s to its former level. The fluctuations for blue, red, green and orange almost parallel each other over this period until the late 1920s. Yellow, the lowest ranked color, had the smallest annual variations.

Fig 4
Walton, Guilford and Guilford, 1933 Note: No tests were conducted between 1920 and 1928.
Figure 4 Variations in Color Preferences, 1910 – 30, Males, University of Nebraska

Guilford and Smith (1959) used a large color range of over 300 hues, held brightness and saturation constant and used equal numbers of males and females. They found consistent rating from day to day. Males rated the colors slightly higher than females. Preferences were highest in the green-blue area and lowest in the yellow and yellow-green. They found that affective values were positively related to brightness and saturation.

The study of children’s color preferences has shown that the earliest top preference is yellow. Staples (1932) found that below 6 months of age, infants preferred chromatic colors to the achromatic. The hues in order of preference were: yellow, blue, red and green. By the time the child is two years old, red becomes the favored color and by school age, this has again changed to blue.

Explanations of color preferences

While the studies have shown what people’s color preferences are, they do not offer any explanation of why these are so. Research in recent years has sought to reach an explanation.

Humphrey (1976) believed that colors indicate whether the object could be approached, such as ripe red fruit, or avoided, such as poisonous plants. Preference for the color reflected its suitability for use.

Hurlbert & Ling (2007) (see also Ling & Hurlbert, 2009) examined the colors of objects and the colors of their background. They believed that through evolution and “genetic tuning,” our color vision came to prefer color combinations advantageous for health and well-being, for example, red berries or fruit against green leaves. They found that both genders preferred violet to yellow-green hues, but females preferred redder hues whereas males preferred blue-green hues. They interpreted the differences, using an evolutionary/behavior adaptive model, that the red related to finding fruit and berries against green foliage in hunter-gatherer stage of human development; however, they offered no explanation for the males’ blue-green preferences.   

Research which lends support to innate color preferences is a study of the color preferences of 12 week-old infants who were shown a range of colors (Teller et al, 2004). The color first viewed was assumed to be their preference. Interestingly, their preferences correlated closely (r2 = 0.75) with those of adults (Figure 5).

Fig 5
Teller, et al, 2004 Note: Adult preferences converted to same scale as infants.                         
Figure 5 Color preferences of infants compared with adults

Ou et al (2004) found sets of “coloremotions”, that people’s experience of color could be described on nine emotional dimensions: warm–cool, heavy–light, modern–classical, clean–dirty, active–passive, hard–soft, tense–relaxed, fresh–stale, masculine–feminine. Analysis found that 67% of the variance in color preferences could be explained by three dimensions: active–passive (active preferred), heavy–light (light preferred), and warm–cool (cool preferred). They offered no explanations, however, for these preferences.

Palmer & Schloss (2010) (see also Schloss & Palmer, 2011; Palmer et al, 2012;) proposed an ecological valence theory (EVT) of human color preferences in which “people like colors to the degree that they like the environmental objects that are that color,” in other words, it is the association with certain objects that generate the color preferences. Valence in psychological terms is the degree of attraction or aversion that an individual feel toward a specific object or event ( People are more likely to survive and reproduce successfully if they are attracted to objects whose colors ‘look good’ to them and avoid objects whose colors ‘look bad’ to them. Thus blue skies and clean water of blue and cyan hues are attractive while rotting food and faeces of brown hue is repulsive. Blue is the most popular color while brown is the least popular.

To test their theory, they asked 48 participants to rate 32 colors in terms of how much they liked them. They found preference for strongly saturated colors over muted or pastel hues, strong preference for reds, blues and greens while brown and olive green were less preferred. However, this exercise did not link the hues to objects. To do this, they first showed 74 participants colors against a grey background and asked them to write descriptions of objects of that color, both pleasant and unpleasant. This linked color with a total of 222 objects. A different group of 98 participants then read these descriptions and asked how appealing they found the object – the instructions made no mention of color. The results provided a ranking of 222 objects which was compared with the ranking of colors made by the first group. An 80% correlation was achieved between the color preference of the first group and the appeal of the objects by the final group. Figure 6 shows the closeness of the results for the saturated hues. 

Fig 6
Palmer & Schloss, 2010 Note: The Object data is the weighted average valence estimate (WAVE) converted here to the same scale as the preference results. Only the results for saturated hues are shown.
Figure 6 Comparisons of color preferences and object appeal

The authors concluded that: the EVT provides a clear and plausible explanation of color preferences: The preferences are caused by affective responses to correspondingly colored objects. Although they acknowledged the association was correlational, not causative, they asserted that it was unlikely to be the reverse, for if this were so, then chocolate and faeces which are both brown would be similarly appealing.

The authors applied their method to participants from a range of countries. They found the correlation for Japanese to be somewhat less than for Americans, 0.74 compared with 0.80, which suggest that innate preferences are conditioned by cultural influences. Overall however, the study indicates a link between color preferences and the color of objects, suggesting that the color preferred corresponds with the object that are favored. A weakness is that only a few such examples were cited although they examined over 200 objects.

A study which examined the cross-cultural preferences for color compared these for adults from Britain and from Himba, a non-industrialized culture in rural Namibia.  They found:

“the average pattern of color preference is strikingly different for Himba and British participants.  Himba participants have a clear preference for the ‘saturated’ versions of red, orange, yellow, chartreuse and green hues, but have low preference for the light and dark versions of these hues, and low preference for all bluish colors. There is no evidence from the Himba color preferences for the so called ‘universal’ preference for bluish hues or aversion to yellow green which can be clearly seen in the British data” (Taylor et al, 2015).

These studies are searching for a link to an innate evolutionary basis for color preferences and while they have made some progress the link is still fairly tenuous.


In summary, this brief review of color preferences has found that the highest preferences are for red, blue and green with saturated hues scoring higher than hues of low saturation. Differences between genders are slight but differences between races, and between industrialized and non-industrialized cultures, may be larger. An evolutionary basis for color preferences is considered likely, and some studies have provided intriguing suggestions of a link, but the definitive connection has yet to be made.


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