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As The Seasons Change, So Do Our Color Preferences

Mimi Haddon
Getty Images

With the passage of time, the cool blues of winter give way to the festive pastels of spring; the vibrant colors of summer presage the warm, leafy palette of fall.

Alongside these changes in nature come changes in fashion and cosmetics; people dress for the season not only to keep warm or cool, but to match the spirit of the moment.

But do these seasonal variations in our color experiences and color choices also affect our color preferences? Is lavender better liked in spring, and burnt umber better liked in fall?

A new paper suggests the answer may be "yes" — and goes on to offer an explanation why.

In a paper forthcoming in the journal Cognitive Science, psychologist Karen Schloss and her colleagues investigated whether and why color preferences change according to the season. In an initial study, 50 participants from Massachusetts indicated how much they liked each of 37 colors, with 39 doing so for each season over a one-year period. Despite the modest sample size, analyses revealed reliable, seasonal shifts in color preferences, with the most dramatic shift for fall. Relative to their responses during the rest of the year, people liked dark, warm colors (such as dark red, orange and chartreuse) more during the fall.

Schloss and her colleagues went on to collect additional data to test a variety of hypotheses about what might drive this seasonal shift in color preferences. Is it just that seasons are associated with different colors? Do we like objects of particular colors (such as fall leaves) more during some times of the year than others? Or do the types of objects and events that tend to come to mind when we view different colors change throughout the year?

The researchers found the strongest support for this final possibility — during the fall, dark yellow-green is likely to remind us of beautiful fall leaves; the same color in winter might bring to mind vomit.

This explanation of seasonal variation in color preferences fits under a framework that Schloss and collaborator Stephen Palmer have developed to explain people's color preferences more generally. Called the "Ecological Valence Theory," the basic idea is that people's preference for a color is a function of how strongly they associate that color with various objects or experiences, and how they feel about those objects and experiences. The most popular color, blue, tends to be associated with clean water and clear skies, both of which are positive associations. For a color like brown, experience and context can determine whether you're more likely to think "chocolate" or "poop" — and, correspondingly, how much you'll like the color.

The ecological valence theory is supported by a variety of studies, with the findings on seasonal variation in color preferences among the most recent to join this set. If the theory is right, it suggests that various aspects of our shared and idiosyncratic life experiences shape our aesthetic responses to color.

As winter shades into spring, does the ecological valence theory offer any advice for those who track seasonal colors in fashion?

I decided to ask Karen Schloss, the lead author on the forthcoming study. She offered the following advice: "Keep an eye out for bright, fresh colors that remind you of sunny skies, blooming flowers and lush leaves on warm spring days. I can't wait!"

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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Tania Lombrozo is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Lombrozo directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab, where she and her students study aspects of human cognition at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, including the drive to explain and its relationship to understanding, various aspects of causal and moral reasoning and all kinds of learning.

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