Faster is Not Always Better

The February 8, 2010, issue of USA Today devoted a half page to a color preference test for personality traits. Boosters boasted that a mere 60 seconds of assessment could nail one’s temperament. Detractors derided the test as hit-or-miss. Where do I stand?

Research over the decades has failed to show consistent relationships between color preferences and personality traits. Indeed, color preference is largely a matter of emotional attachments to colors from one’s past or current experience—whether to the forest greens of mountain homes or to the sky blue of my favorite basketball team. We form strong feelings—both pro and con—when bathing in the colors of our childhood and continuing through current passions. My eastern North Carolina home had burgundy rugs everywhere, including a runner up a steep staircase to our second floor. Years of playing “Chinese school” on the burgundy runner, of sliding down the banister that bordered it, and of horseplay with dozens of cousins, nieces, and nephews on burgundy carpet all contribute to warm feelings for burgundy.

It is just as likely that those rugs could have been a hue of blue, a sheen of green, or a mellow yellow. But they were blood burgundy, and that is why I have strong feelings for that color. So, in my case, burgundy the color is associated with love of family, with playfulness, with sociability. But that color could just as easily have been another. Guilty by association!

The test reported in USA Today claimed to be quick (under 60 seconds to take it at I took it. Indeed, it was very quick. But as in many ventures in life, you get out of something what you put into it. I took the test seriously, carefully considering which member in the series of color pairings I most or least preferred. I struggled with my responses, as many pairings were of colors for which I had equal feelings—either equally positive or equally neutral. I didn’t have negative feelings. I’m a Will Rogers with color—never met a color I didn’t like. Life is color. Sometimes too much, sometimes the wrong color, but, like people, every color has its own beauty, somewhere, sometime.

My report tagged me primarily as an “Organizer” and secondly as a “Doer.” I was puzzled. Had my scores been misplaced with one of my partner’s? One is the organizer and the doer. I am the opposite of the two: I’m an explorer and a contemplator who relies on having organizers and doers around me to ever get anything finished!

From the point of view of sound test construction, I also fault the test for being “ipsative.” It asked only my preferences. It didn’t ask for the strength of my preference—it didn’t allow for “shades of gray.” Everything was either/or. Moreover, it didn’t allow for color blindness. It also did not provide for the role of context: clothing (my clothing, partner’s clothing; clothing at work, at home, at play), wall color (for my office, bedroom, hobby room, living room), car color (exterior, interior), and so on.

Such tests, by chance, will nail a person’s temperament from time to time. But their claims that the test is less “fake-able” than verbal tests does not withstand scrutiny. Yes, it is quick. But instant grits are also quick—and watery and tasteless and unnourishing. Take the time to cook coarse grits (available from Mabry Mills on the Blue Ridge Parkway!), and you’ll be rewarded with chewy, tasty nourishment.Take the time to do a proper assessment, and you’ll be rewarded with a more accurate personality portrayal.

Moral: Say no to quick fixes.

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