Genes make men prefer blue, women pink

22 August, 2007:

It’s now scientific. The notion that little girls like everything in pink while little boys opt for blue seems to have a scientific basis.

Scientists have found that one’s color preference depends largely on one’s sex.

The researchers, Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling of Newcastle University, the United Kingdom, found that women tend to prefer pink – or, at least a redder shade – while men fancy blue, and that the gender difference may be more because of genes than upbringing.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, investigated the view – held for long but largely unsupported until now – that men and women differ in their color preferences. It is also the first study to show that there is a scientific basis for the idea that girls are born with a particular affinity for pink.

However, despite the evidence for differences between the sexes in terms of visual skills, there was no conclusive proof of sex differences in color preference. “This fact is perhaps surprising given the prevalence and longevity of the notion that little girls differ from boys in preferring pink,” Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling said.

Dr Hurlbert recruited 208 people aged between 20 and 26 for the study and subjected them to a set of tests to determine their color preferences. A substantial minority – 37 – of the group were born and raised in China, which allowed the scientists to compare the preferences of people from two different cultures.

As fast as they could, each young man and woman had to choose their preferred color from a series of paired, colored rectangles shown on a computer screen. The universally preferred color for both sexes was blue, but females also showed a distinct preference for reddish colors.

Dr Hurlbert explains: “Though we expected to find sex differences, we were surprised at how robust they were, given the simplicity of the test. On top of the universal preference for blue, females have a preference for the red end of the red-green axis, and this shifts their color preference slightly away from blue towards red, which tends to make pinks and lilacs the most preferred colors in comparison with others.”

When the two scientists compared the color preferences of the white British participants with the men and women brought up in China, the same sex differences emerged – with Chinese females again showing a clear preference for pink. This suggests that, whatever is the underlying explanation for the differences in color preferences between men and women, it seems to be biological rather than cultural, Dr Hurlbert concludes.

Human vision is trichromatic, meaning that we have three color-sensitive pigments in our eyes – like chimps, gorillas, and other apes. Biologists believe that trichromatic vision in primates came about as a result of the need to distinguish ripened fruit, as well as young, nutritious leaves, in a forest canopy.

However, early human societies almost certainly engaged in a division of labor between the sexes, with men traveling long distances to hunt wild game. Women foraged locally for fruit and berries.

Dr Hurlbert suggests that this division of labor may be at the root of why girls now prefer pink.

Evolution may have driven females to prefer reddish colors – reddish fruits, healthy, reddish faces. Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference, she said.

As for the wider human preference for blue, Dr Hurlbert said this may have something to do with our love for the grassy plains of our place of origin, in Africa, where the sky is an important feature of the landscape.





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