Design by Emily Schwartz

Scientists estimate that humans can see about 18 decillion varieties of color. That’s 18 followed by 33 zeros.

With a virtually infinite array of options to choose from, picking a favorite would seem like a time-consuming, maybe even unnecessary task. And yet, choosing a favorite color is a time-honored childhood tradition. In school, with family, in the media we consume — color preference is a staple of our earliest experiences and associations. Looking back, it seems random and unexciting. But a common question requires the development of a solid answer.

I tried pink. I tested out yellow. I dabbled in green and blue and maybe even orange if I was feeling quirky. But nothing really felt like my “right” answer until I started telling everyone that my favorite color was — and would always be — purple.

It’s been about 15 years since I made that declaration, and since then my grandma has concluded every text message with purple heart emojis. When my mom let me redecorate my room in second grade, I insisted on a thin, cheaply made comforter from because it was the only one we found that had a purple background and a purple heart pattern.

My affinity with purple has seemed to carry over into my young adulthood. In almost every mundane purchase I make, I will always choose the purple option. If Amazon tells me it’s going to take an extra four days for a lavender reusable water bottle to arrive, I’ll gladly wait. When I couldn’t find the right lilac-tinted photos for my freshman year dorm, I bought a paint set and made them myself.

Upon scrolling through TikTok, I eventually discovered that this color obsession, particularly with purple, was more common than I imagined. The original creator of the “purple girl” sound, Delanie Majors, has garnered over 360,000 likes on a video that guides users through her extensive collection of purple items.

“You know, some days I wake up and ask myself, ‘Has this third-grade purple obsession gone too far?’” she says as she whips out everything from sleep masks to tennis skirts to dog leashes.

Since Majors posted this video in June, 53 other TikTok users have taken the sound to show off their own purple habits. These videos helped me realize that intensity of color preference was not just an individual quirk but a psychological habit. When thinking about the way I’ve grown up and taken autonomy over how I choose to present myself, I realized that purple has become a pivotal part of my physical self-expression. My predominantly purple wardrobe does much more than bring me internal joy; it is my way of communicating the values I associate with the color. This is a somewhat common phenomenon; my love of purple is anything but isolated. Perhaps it is simply a result of the way you and I think and function.

Color psychology is somewhat of an unanswered scientific question, though. There are some studies that provide moderately strong correlations between color and human response. But for the most part, sources that claim universal psychological meaning to colors are under researched and uncited. As scientists have been searching for decades for an answer to what colors mean to the human brain, it seems we’ve developed cultural meanings of our own.

For me, liking purple was the perfect way to subvert gender stereotypes while staying true to the femininity I identified with. It was the “other” of the constructed “girly” colors, allowing me to feel unique without alienating me from the piece of me who loved rose-cheeked princesses and frilly pink dresses. In the social binary of gendered color identification (i.e., boys like blue, girls like pink), purple gave me somewhat of a way out. Even if I couldn’t process it in elementary school, purple made me feel like I could be more than my femininity. It made me feel like a whole person.

If you asked every person who made a TikTok showing off their purple possessions, chances are they’d all have different origin stories for their color preferences. This may be due to classical conditioning theory that tells us that associations between two stimuli are learned through experience and solidified unconsciously.

For example: If you always drink tea while doing homework, drinking tea could make your body think it has homework to do, so you pull out your computer. It’s subtle, and relatively latent, but it’s there. Each individual makes decisions, whether implicit or explicit, about color preferences in the context of their own lives and the culture they reside in. What we see, hear and experience can make the difference between seeing a color as fearful or loving.

The same process is theorized to contribute to color associations, which can differ vastly across cultural and social environments. In Mexico and Poland, purple tends to convey fear and envy. In Japan, it’s sin and fear. In China, South Korea and the United States, it connotes love.

Researchers suggested these negative associations could be due in part to portrayals of purple in mythology and folklore. Jobes’s “Dictionary of Mythology, Folklore and Symbols” found repeated use of purple to represent authority, power, arrogance, gloom, tragedy and vanity. For the more positive associations, the researchers cited a study that showed American participants a series of musical excerpts and asked them to choose color and emotional associations for each clip. Forty percent of the participants linked purple with sounds they interpreted as emphatic, majestic and exalting. A similar study found a majority of participants associated purple with being dignified and stately.

Even with all of this data, research is light on determining the exact cultural and social contexts that establish these color associations. But University of Wisconsin professor Karen Schloss has established a framework to view cultural and color perceptions in tandem.

Her ecological valence theory (EVT) states that colors themselves are neutral, asserting our own subjective histories add human layers of meaning onto them. The theory is supported by a study that found direct correlations between color preference and cultural institution association. For students at the University of California, Berkeley, their blue and gold school colors were ranked higher in a preference survey than students at Stanford. The inverse went for the red and green colors of Stanford.

“If a group of people has a strong positive (or negative) emotional investment in an important social institution that has powerful and consistent color associations (e.g., universities, athletic teams, street gangs, religious orders, and even holidays), then the EVT predicts that this group should come to like the associated colors correspondingly more (or less, depending on the polarity of their affect) than a neutral group,” the study reads.

Though widespread association data has not yet been collected, this theory can be useful in examining our own decisions and preferences. When I think back to shopping with my grandma as a young child, I distinctly remember walking past the front window of bright pink tutus and frilly dresses to tamer purple sweaters and sparkly T-shirts. Choosing from the back end of the store rather than the more popular outfits on display gave me a sense of autonomy, even if I didn’t understand it at the time.

EVT gives color the power to influence consumer choices — hence color’s pivotal role in modern product and brand marketing tactics. Even as a child, I was able to discern my clothing and decor preferences based on how brands portrayed different colors and their subsequent means of self expression.

In today’s overwhelming consumer market, colors are one of the few distinctions between brands essentially selling the same product. These color distinctions allow us to limit our options to what is aesthetically pleasing to us, if we desire. If you’re having trouble deciding between Shake Shack and In-N-Out, your preference for red could help lead you to the latter. If you want a new eyeshadow palette but can’t figure out the difference between brands, the bubblegum pink of Benefit Cosmetics could be your deciding factor.

But color branding is not just for companies attempting to profit off consumer preferences — it’s for individual branding, too. With a bedroom filled with purple clothing and household items, I attempt to communicate the values of individuality and creativity that I associate with my color of choice. In selecting purple as my modem of physical identification and expression, I am lightly attempting to tell people who I am and who I want to be.

The associations I’ve developed internally may not be universally understood, but they do dictate how I display myself to others. In those choices lies my perception of the “purple personality” that I’ve opted to cultivate — a positive feedback loop between my understanding of color and of myself.

As we grow through childhood and beyond, the ways we interpret and utilize color to make meaning of identities tell us where we’ve been. From the first time we’re asked our favorite color to choosing how to decorate our freshman year dorm rooms, our color partialities influence decision making and in turn reflect how we see ourselves.

Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg can be reached at