Blue planet: world’s favourite colour revealed

An international survey spanning four continents has shown that blue is comfortably the most popular colour in countries around the world. Does the explanation lie in evolution or culture?

In Britain, the colour blue stands for cold, melancholy and aristocracy. In Korea it is the colour of mourning, while Jewish tradition associates it with the law of God. According to a new survey, however, these varying connotations have little effect on personal tastes: blue is by far the most popular colour in countries east and west alike.

The polling company YouGov approached over 10,000 people across four continents with a simple question: ‘Which of the colours listed below do you like most?’ In Britain, Australia, Germany and USA, around a third of respondents preferred blue, and roughly a quarter in all six Asian countries surveyed. Green and red were distant runners-up — in no country did another colour get above 17% of the vote.

‘What’s your favourite colour?’ may seem a childish question, but it raises an issue that still bamboozles psychologists. Why do we like some colours more than others?

There is no doubt that our preferences are partly a matter of experience and identity. The notion that pink is feminine, for instance, arose only in the 1940s, yet YouGov’s survey shows that almost no men identify with the colour. What’s more, experiments in which participants were prompted to develop positive or negative responses to particular colours support the idea that we ‘learn’ to like certain hues.

Yet the consistency of the survey’s results seems to suggest that there is also something more universal at work. Perhaps, as some scientists believe, there are evolutionary explanations for the feelings that colours evoke.

Blue, for instance, may be primordially associated with the midday sky, when primitive organisms would swim to the surface of the ocean, soak in the sun and rest. This would explain experiments that appear to show that blue makes us calmer and more focused. Blue light has even been credited with lowering suicide rates on train platforms in Japan.

Red, by contrast, lies on a section of the light spectrum that few species can see. Biologists believe that humans developed sensitivity to it because it allowed us to detect blood rising in a companion’s face and thereby read their emotional state. Hence, perhaps, the colour’s widespread associations with passion and aggression.

Singing the blues

Many people rebel against the idea that our opinions are dictated by such primal biological factors as this. Humans are complex, reasoning animals, they say, not unthinking grunters in the mud.

Don’t be so sure, evolutionary psychologists respond: we may feel like our feelings result from thought and experience, but we carry within us instincts that evolved millions of years ago. We are not as rational as we like to think.

You Decide

  1. What’s your favourite colour? Can you explain why?
  2. Do our opinions generally arise from rational thought, or are they a produced by irrational unconscious impulses?

Activities

  1. Construct your own survey to expand on YouGov’s research about colour preferences. What other factors might affect people’s choices and how can you use the survey to investigate them?
  2. Without consulting anybody else, write down at least one word you associate with each colour on the survey. Compare your answers as a class. Did similar themes emerge? Why / why not?

Some People Say...

“Mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”

Oscar Wilde

What do you think?

Q & A

Favourite colours? Isn’t that all a bit trivial?
Colour might not seem like a particularly significant subject, but in fact it can have astonishing affects on the way you experience the world. Research suggests, for instance, that food and drink tend to taste better when eaten using red utensils.
All very interesting. But does it have any practical implications for me?
For a start, you might want to consider the impact of a colour before wearing it or decorating your room with it. But even if you don’t consider these things, others will. Political parties and companies often use it to manipulate our responses — from Coca Cola red to Tory blue. When you are making a snap decision about which brand to buy, colour might be the decisive factor, whether you know it or not.

Word Watch

Pink
In pre-20th century Europe it was traditional for brown-eyed boys to be given pink gifts. Women, meanwhile, were regularly dressed in blue — the colour of the Virgin Mary.
Prompted
In a 2010 study, people shown images of unpleasant red things and pleasant green things were more likely to prefer green; and vice versa.
Primitive organisms
The first organisms to develop sensitivity to light were still very simple and lived in the ocean. They did not have what we would consider ‘sight’.
Calmer and more focused
In one 2006 study, blue light appeared to markedly improve people’s performance in a test. Green may help with creative tasks.
Suicide rates
When blue lights were installed on Japanese train platforms, suicide rates dropped by 9%.
Light spectrum
The colours we can see make up only a tiny section of the light spectrum. Violet, indigo and blue are produced by light with a shorter wavelength, red and orange by light with a longer wavelength. Some animals, such as birds, can see long-wavelength ultraviolet light. Others, such as snakes, can see long-wavelength infra red.

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