What is Colour for Culture?

The ability of the human species to see colour has probably been inherited from ancestors who needed to see and select food that was safe and wholesome to eat. In common with that of other animal species, our total appearance, that is our colour, colour patterning, design and behavioural display, have adapted to physical, geographical, climatological and sexual environments. The inheritance of colour vision has been exploited and colour now forms a highly significant part of modern life. (Nassau, 1997) As well understood as the physiology of colour is, it provides little explanation for our opinions of colour and colour combinations. At the very least, opinions of colour are learned and highly associative.

The use of colour symbolism varies tremendously from culture to culture. (Wegman & Said, 2011) In some cultures, when specifying a colour, the texture of the object is more important, and the hue less important. And within Western culture, the enormous increase in interest in highly contrasting hues that was evident in the arts around the turn of this century probably arose from a combination of psychological and technological developments in society. So, colour and culture are inextricably linked. (Lamb & Bourriau, 1995)

How Cultural Colour Preferences Were Formed

It is well established that the number of basic colour categories and the extensions of the colour categories across colour space strongly vary depending on the language community. However, cross-cultural commonalities in categorization indicate that categorization is shaped by determinants that are independent from languages and could also have an ecological origin. For example, they could be related to statistical regularities of colour distributions in the visual environment which would shape colour categorization through early experience rather than being a consequence of hard-wired mechanisms of colour processing. (Witzel & Gegenfurtner, 2018)

Although some writers have claimed that colour preferences are universal across cultures, modern empirical research reveals that both similarities and differences exist. The strongest case for a universal preference is for bluish colours. There are exceptions, however, such as blue being ranked among the least preferred colours in Kuwait, and also in Ancient Rome, as evidenced by its relative disuse in historical artifacts. A second contender for universality is the robust dislike of dark yellow (olive), which has been reported for Chinese, British, Japanese, and American observers. Note that even if such universal colour preferences exist, they may reflect universal features of human ecology rather than innate preferences: e.g., clear sky and clean water are universally blue, whereas biological wastes and rotting food are universally dark yellow. (Palmer, Schloss, & Sammartino, 2013)

An ecological explanation, called the “ecological valence theory” (EVT), was formulated and tested by Palmer & Schloss. They proposed that people like/dislike a specific colour to the degree that they like/dislike all of the environmental objects that are associated with that colour. The ecological rationale is that it will be adaptive for organisms to approach objects whose colours they like and avoid objects whose colours they dislike to the extent that their colour preferences are correlated with objects that are beneficial versus harmful to them. Palmer & Schloss reported strong support for the EVT through empirical measurements of what they call weighted affective valence estimates (WAVEs) for 32 chromatic colours. The WAVE for each colour measures the extent to which people like the set of objects that are associated with that colour. According to the EVT, WAVEs for a given culture should predict that culture’s colour preferences better than another culture’s colour preferences, and vice versa. This prediction is based on the idea that different cultures frequently have different colour-object associations and/or different valences for the same objects, both of which can affect colour preferences. (Palmer, Schloss, & Sammartino, 2013)

Impact of Geolocation/Nature on Dominant Cultural Colours 

Several factors are thought to be responsible for colour preference, including local customs, taboos and demographic factors such as age, gender, education, income, family status, geographical area of residence and ethnicity. (Aslam, 2005) It was demonstrated that among nine cultural groups – Americans, Germans, Danes, Australians, Papua New Guineans, South Africans, Japanese-Americans living in the USA, non-Japanese living in Japan, and Japanese – vivid blue was the only colour that was commonly preferred highly by all groups, suggesting that cultural variables are indeed involved in colour preference.

An example of the geographical and environmental factors on colour preference can be seen in the affinity for white in Asian cultures. Several studies found that white was the highest preferred colour among the Japanese. White is also the preferred colour in Korea, Taiwan, China and Indonesia, confirming the hypothesis that the strong preference for white is based to some degree on geographical and cultural variables, while the reasons for this preference may vary. In Japan, white was mostly preferred because of its associative image of being clean, pure, harmonious, refreshing, beautiful, clear, gentle, and natural. Another possible explanation of the preference for white in Japan is that literature on ancient Japanese religion and mythology states that ancient people believed in the power of the Sun. As white represented the colour of the Sun or sunshine, people accepted it as a sacred colour. One possible explanation for this preference in China could be the fact that the most frequently used colour word in Chinese literature was the character for white, termed association influence. Another possibility was that their preference derived from the colour of their national flag, termed tradition influence. An alternative explanation, language influence, noted that the Chinese character for white is associated not only with pureness but also with everything open, clear, and unselfish. White is also a symbol of sacredness for the Chinese and is considered the source of every colour, suggesting it to be substantial and unique. In Indonesia, white was reported as being mostly preferred for its image of being clean, chaste, neutral, and light. (Saito, 2015)

Stability of Cultural Colour Preferences

During the course of the analysis of colour preference, it has been found that there are preferences which have remained relatively unchanged for many years and those that have been changeable. In addition, it seems to be found that there are preferences that are common universally and those that seem to be distinctive to a specific region. For example, “blue” tended to be preferred very highly in all regions in all years surveyed. Similarly, in an early cross-cultural 1963 study of taboo colours over the world, it was found that “blue” was not a taboo colour in any country.

Moreover, reasons for selecting colours that tended to be liked or disliked regardless of time or place were closely connected with feelings of “pleasantness” and “unpleasantness.” The three principal images most frequently associated with pleasant feelings were “beautiful,” “agreeable,” and “bright,” while those most frequently associated with unpleasant feelings were “dirty,” “disagreeable,” and “dark.” These associations were observed commonly in all regions regardless of the year of the survey. (Saito, 2015)

Many researchers have appealed to color symbolism to explain cultural differences. The idea that colour symbolism influences colour preferences is conceptually consistent with ecological accounts of colour preference, according to which colour preferences are determined by people’s preferences for the “things” that are associated with those colours, provided that the “things” include abstractions such as purity and good luck as well as concrete objects and social institutions. Solid empirical evidence for the role of colour symbolism in colour preference is largely lacking, however. (Palmer, Schloss, & Sammartino, 2013)


Aslam, M. M. (2005). Are you selling the right colour? A cross-cultural review of colour as a marketing cue. International Conference on Corporate and Marketing Communications, (pp. 1-14).

Lamb, T., & Bourriau, J. (1995). Colour: Art and Science. Cambridge University Press.

Nassau, K. (1997). Color for Science, Art and Technology. Elsevier Science.

Palmer, S. E., Schloss, K. B., & Sammartino, J. (2013). Visual Aesthetics and Human Preference. Annual Review of Psychology, 77-107.

Saito, M. (2015). Comparative (Cross-cultural) Color Preference and Its Structure. Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology.

Wegman, E., & Said, Y. (2011). Color theory and design. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Computational Statistics, 104-117.

Witzel, C., & Gegenfurtner, K. R. (2018). Color Perception: Objects, Constancy, and Categories. Annual Review of Vision Science, 475-499.