Palmer and Schloss (2010) reported that preference for a given color is largely determined by affective responses to all of the objects associated with that color. Their ecological valence theory posits that it would be adaptive for people to engage with objects whose colors they like and to avoid objects whose colors they dislike to the extent that their color preferences are correlated with objects that are beneficial/harmful to them. Palmer and Schloss developed an empirical procedure to measure the WAVEs (weighted affective valence estimates) of colors. Each color’s WAVE is the average valence (liking/disliking) rating for all object descriptions given as associations of that color, with each object-valence rating weighted by how well it matches the color for which it was described. U.S. WAVEs strongly predicted average U.S. color preferences (r = .89). For example, people generally like blues and cyans partly because they like blue and cyan objects, such as clear sky and clean water, whereas they generally dislike greenish-browns partly because they dislike greenish-brown objects, such as biological wastes and rotting food.
Color preferences are influenced by color-related experiences within one’s lifetime. Such experiences include a multitude of culturally specific experiences with ecological objects. For example, ecological factors might influence differences between U.S. and Japanese color preferences. Yokosawa, Schloss, Asano, & Palmer (in press) reported that Japanese and U.S. color preferences have both similarities (e.g., peaks around blue, troughs around dark-yellow, and preferences for saturated colors) and differences (e.g., Japanese participants like darker colors less than U.S. participants do). The ecological valence theory implies that within-culture WAVE-preference correlations should be higher than between-culture WAVE-preference correlations. The results supported these predictions. However, object-based WAVEs in Japan predict Japanese color preferences somewhat less strongly (r = .61) than object-based U.S. WAVEs predict U.S. color preferences (r = .89).
Why might object-based WAVEs explain so much less variance in Japan than in the U.S.? Following Palmer, Schloss, Guo, Wung, Chai & Peng (submitted), we hypothesized that symbolic/conceptual associations with colors may also contribute to Japanese color preferences. Symbolic WAVEs were calculated using the same procedure as for object-based WAVEs, except restricting people’s color associations to symbols and abstract concepts. The correlation between color preferences and the symbolic WAVEs in Japan (r = .57) was comparable to that between color preferences and object-based WAVEs (r = .61). Including both symbolic and object WAVEs produced a multiple-R of .72, indicating that both object and symbolic/conceptual associations with colors contribute to single color preferences in Japan. Further analyses show that symbolic WAVEs were as highly correlated with color preferences as object-based WAVEs were in Japan, but not in the U.S. (r = .58 for symbols; r = .89 for objects). Object and symbolic/conceptual associations with colors thus have comparable impact on Japanese single color preferences. This suggests that, unlike in the US where object associations have a dominant role in color preferences, object and symbolic associations contribute equally to color preferences in Japan.