In 1993, crayon-maker Crayola conducted an unscientific, but intriguing poll: it asked US children to name their favourite crayon colour. Most chose a fairly standard blue, but three other blue shades also made the top 10 list.
Seven years later, the firm repeated its experiment. Again, classic blue ranked in the top spot while six other shades of blue appeared in the top 10, including the delightful sounding “blizzard blue”. They were joined by a shade of purple, a green and a pink.
The dominance of blue in such lists doesn’t surprise Lauren Labrecque, an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies the effect of colour in marketing. Like a Pantone-sponsored party trick, she’ll often ask students in her classes to name their favourite colour. After they respond, she clicks on her presentation. “I have a slide already made up saying ‘80% of you said blue’,” Labrecque tells them. She is usually right. “Because once we get to be adults, we all like blue. It seems to be cross cultural, and there’s no big difference – people just like blue.” (Interestingly, Japan is one of the few countries where people rank white in their top three colours).
Our selection of a favourite colour is something that tends to emerge in childhood: ask any child what theirs is and the majority – crayon in hand – will already be primed to answer. Infants have broad and fairly inconsistent preferences for colours, according to research. (They do show some preference for lighter shades, though.) But the more time children spend in the world, the more they start to develop stronger affinities to certain colours, based on those they have been exposed to and the associations they link them to. They are more likely to link bright colours like orange, yellow, purple or pink to positive rather than negative emotions.
One study of 330 children between 4-11 years old found they used their favourite colours when drawing a “nice” character and tended to use black when drawing a “nasty” character (although other studies have failed to find such links, so emotional associations and colour are far from straightforward). Social pressures – such as the tendency for girls’ clothes and toys to be pink – also have a strong effect on colour choice as children get older.
It is commonly believed that as children enter their teenage years, their colour choices take on a darker, more sombre hue, but there isn’t much academic research to support this. Adolescent girls in the UK, for example, have been found to be attracted to purples and reds, while boys favour greens and yellow-greens. One study of British teenage boys’ choice of bedroom colour found they tended to choose white, while they listed red and blue as favourite colours.
These colour palettes seem to converge as people grow into adulthood. Intriguingly, while the majority of adults say they prefer blue colours, they’ll likely also dislike the same colour too: a dark yellowish brown is routinely identified as least popular.
But why do we have favourite colours? More importantly, what drives those preferences?
Put simply, we have favourite colours because we have favourite things.
At least that’s the gist of ecological valence theory, an idea put forward by Karen Schloss, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, and her colleagues. Her experiments showed that colours – yes, even beige – are far from neutral. Rather, humans layer meaning onto them, mostly drawn from our subjective histories, and so create high personal reasons to find one shade repellent or appealing in the process.
“This accounts for why different people have different preferences for the same colour, and why your preference for a given colour can change over time,” she says. As new associations accrete – whether through everyday exposure in the world around us or artificially by deliberate conditioning – this can cause what we love to change over time.
Read the full story at BBC Future.