Walk into the little girls' aisle at a toy store, and you'll be inundated with pink. We take for granted gender differences in color preference, but for more than 100 years, studies have failed to find a biological basis for the disparity. New research confirms that girls go for red whereas guys do not and links the mechanism to the biology of vision. Our color likes and dislikes may be a remnant of the different roles that men and women played in our distant hunter-gatherer past.
Studies from as long ago as 1897 have hinted at differences in color preference between genders, suggesting that more females preferred reds than did males. But the data were murky and inconsistent, according to experts.
Hoping to clear the air, neuroscientists Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling of Newcastle University in the U.K. performed an experiment on 171 British Caucasians and 38 recent immigrants from China aged 20 to 26. Each subject chose his or her favorite from a series of color pairs on a computer screen. Humans judge color on two scales--one red-green and one blue-yellow. Hurlbert and Ling assigned each color values on these same two scales and compared each gender's preferences.
In the 21 August issue of Current Biology, the researchers report that, on the yellow-blue scale, males and females both went for blue--U.K. females much more strongly than their male counterparts. On the red-green scale, however, females preferred red, whereas males opted for green--a difference that held true for Caucasian and Chinese subjects, although in Chinese females the trend was much more pronounced.
The finding is powerful, says Hurlbert, because it reveals a cross-cultural trend in color preferences. That suggests a biological, rather than cultural, explanation for the phenomenon, she notes, although unanswered by the study is the question of whether these tendencies are acquired or innate. "We think that this is the first hard proof of sex difference in color preference," Hurlbert says. She and Ling speculate that the difference reflects females' gatherer pasts and their need to pick edible red fruits out of a green background of foliage, or possibly that sensitivity to red enables females to better read blush-inducing emotions in their roles as "caregivers and empathizers."
It's a "very well executed study," says Kenneth Zucker, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada, who has published on gender differences in color preference. However, he would like to see more work to confirm the trend's appearance across cultures, noting that, although the Chinese subjects had been in Britain for a maximum of 3 years, they may have picked up British cultural ideas on color.