“Hidden Knowledge in Aesthetic Judgments: Preferences for Color”

by Stephen E. Palmer & Karen B. Schloss

I will present theoretical arguments and empirical evidence indicating that knowledge about the world is implicitly embedded in human aesthetic responses to the colors in visual displays.  Previous research has suggested explanations of color preference based on sensory physiology, color appearance, and color-emotions.  We propose an alternative theory – called “ecological valence theory” – that is based on the hypothesis that color preferences arise from people’s average affective responses to color-associated objects. In essence, it postulates that people like colors that are strongly associated with objects they like (e.g., blues with clear skies and clean water) and dislike colors strongly associated with objects they dislike (e.g., browns with feces and rotten fruit). We report data that provide strong support for this claim: The ecological valence theory predicts average color preferences very well (r = .87) and better than three alternative theories based on sensory physiology, color appearance, and color-emotions, each of which contains more free parameters. It also provides a plausible evolutionary explanation of why color preferences exist and how they arise, based on feedback from people’s experiences with and knowledge of objects in the world.

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