Most people have relatively strong and idiosyncratic color preferences, but little is known about why they have the preferences they do (Eysenck, 1941
; Granger, 1955
; Guilford & Smith, 1959
; McManus, Jones, & Cottrell, 1981
; Hurlbert & Ling, 2007
). Palmer and Schloss (2010
) recently formulated and tested the ecological valence theory (EVT), stating that people’s average color preferences are determined by their average preferences for all objects and institutions associated with those particular colors. In brief, the EVT posits that people like colors to the extent that they are associated with things that those people like (e.g., blues and cyans, associated with positively valued clear sky and clean water) and dislike colors to the extent that they are associated with things that those people do not like (e.g., browns and olive colors, associated with negatively valued feces and rotting food). Palmer and Schloss found that people’s average preference for a given color could be predicted from its weighted affective valence estimate (WAVE): the average of the liking/disliking ratings of all
things associated with that color, weighted by the similarity of the given color to the color of each associate. Most colors have both positive and negative associates, but the weighted average over all associates for each color explained 80% of the variance (with no estimated parameters) in average preference ratings of 32 colors.
The EVT further implies that individual differences in color preferences can be explained by learning from idiosyncratic color-related experiences. Such differences should be detectable by identifying groups of people affiliated with an institution that is strongly associated with particular colors and determining whether those people’s preferences for the associated colors are correlated with the strength of their positive/negative emotional response to that institution.
Many cultural institutions have strong color associations in modern society: nations through flags, sports teams through uniforms, corporate brands through logos, and American universities through school colors. Members of a given university community, for example, tend to wear clothes, drink from mugs, write in notebooks, and see signs in their school’s colors. At sporting events, students often dress in school colors—and sometimes even paint their bodies in them—to broadcast their fervent allegiance. With so many emotionally charged experiences so closely linked to particular colors and color combinations, do students at universities actually come to like
their school’s colors more than others do? Moreover, do their preferences for those colors correlate with the strength of their positive (or negative) affect toward the institution—their level of “school spirit”—as the EVT implies?1
In this article, we test these predictions using not only the positive affect students typically feel toward their own university, but the negative affect they often feel for a rival school.
Among American universities, strong rivalries often arise when athletic competition is involved, but scholastic rivalries are often present as well. The well-known rivalry between the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University is a classic example involving both components. In this rivalry, many students develop not only a strong positive investment in their own school, but also a negative investment in the rival institution. Although preference for one’s institution’s colors and dislike for its rival’s colors may seem inconsequential, it may be socially quite adaptive to share such color preferences with one’s community. At Berkeley, for example, it is socially acceptable—and even desirable among some student groups—to shout, “Take off that red shirt!” when they see another Berkeley student wearing a Stanford red shirt on campus, especially right before the “Big Game” clash between their two football teams. One Berkeley professor even reports that his teaching ratings improved after he stopped lecturing in a red sweater! Could such negativity actually cause students to dislike the rival’s colors to a degree that depends on their school spirit, as the EVT implies?
We tested these predictions by measuring Berkeley and Stanford undergraduates’ preferences for the single colors (Experiment 1
) and color pairs (Experiment 2
) associated with both universities. We also measured each student’s level of “school spirit” for his/her respective university through a self-report questionnaire to test the EVT’s prediction that differences between color preferences among students at the two schools will be present to the degree that students have positive emotional associations with their own university and negative emotional associations toward the rival university.