Pink is for girls and Blue is for boys?

It’s so embarrassing when scientists use poorly-constructed studies to blithely reinforce societal stereotypes. Today, LPH at Second Innocence brings us the latest example.

A new study by scientists from Newcastle University gives substance to the old adage ‘Pink for a girl, blue for a boy’.

Evolution may have driven women’s preference for pink, according to the study published today.

‘The explanation might date back to humans’ hunter-gatherer days, when women were the primary gatherers and would have benefited from an ability to home in on ripe, red fruits. Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference’, says Professor Anya Hurlbert, Professor of Visual Neuroscience at Newcastle University.

The study, which is published in the latest issue of Current Biology, provides new scientific evidence in support of the long-held notion that men and women differ when it comes to their favourite colours.

‘Although we expected to find gender differences, we were surprised at how robust they were, given the simplicity of our test,’ says Professor Hurlbert.

LPH points out, this is really dumb for two glaring reasons. First, the pink=girl, blue=boy thing is a relatively new invention:

“…the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is pertier for the girl.” [Ladies Home Journal, June, 1918]

Second, it’s just stupid to think you can take 171 brits who have been exposed to this stereotype their entire lives and expect a result to be reflective of some genetic effect. The explanations they come up with are cringe-worthy.

‘The explanation might date back to humans’ hunter-gatherer days, when women were the primary gatherers and would have benefited from an ability to home in on ripe, red fruits. Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference’, says Professor Anya Hurlbert, Professor of Visual Neuroscience at Newcastle University.

However, Professor Hurlbert says she could only speculate about the universal preference for blue: ‘Here again, I would favour evolutionary arguments. Going back to our ‘savannah’ days, we would have a natural preference for a clear blue sky, because it signalled good weather. Clear blue also signals a good water source’, she says.

LPH’s response is about right.

Oh, those savvy homo habilis home makers. You probably use those same red-finding skills in the supermarket today! Well, that settles it. We can, in fact, use preferences formed by a very small, very homogeneous group to explain our genetic gender differences and there will always be someone with the right letters behind their name who is willing to back up even the stupidest stereotype.

How does this kind of nonsense get published?

Comments

  1. #1 Confluence
    August 21, 2007

    Wow.

    I’m waiting for someone to “prove” that men have an evolutionary drive to wear pants, because wrapping their legs in skins individually made them able to run after animals faster.

    Apparently it’s a lot more likely to happen than I though it was when I first made this joke. D:

  2. #2 Laelaps
    August 21, 2007

    This was definitely one of the nuttier things I’ve seen published lately, and it’s a shame that such ill-researched B.S. is winding up on so many internet newswires and other places. I’ve also seen the argument (although I cannot place where) that everyone’s affinity to blue comes from a blue sky signaling good/pleasant weather, which would suggest some crazy kind of Neo-Lamarckism based on pleasant thoughts. Thanks for posting this and showing the study for what it is.

  3. #3 6EQUJ5
    August 21, 2007

    The blue versus pink for baby blankets comes from the coloration of the infant’s genitals, veiny or not veiny.

    Generally speaking, females see the red end of the spectrum better than men, which explains why Mom will notice little Billy is overheated (a little ruddy) and little Sally looks sickly (a little green) while Dad doesn’t see what she’s talking about. This difference is rather reliable, but not large — not large enough to materially drive male and female behavior differently.

    At a guess, the color discrimination difference is likely an artifact of the masculination of males in utero.

  4. #4 Infophile
    August 21, 2007

    You know, it’s actually plausible to me that there could be a biological link between gender and color preferences. I believe there have been studies showing certain colors can trigger certain moods in people, so it’s plausible on the surface that gender – which causes somewhat different brain chemistry – could change this.

    The problem is that this study is ridiculously poorly designed. All it tests is the indoctrination into the stereotype on people, not any innate biological preference. What I’d like to see is an experiment performed on infants whose parents were careful to not be biased in their color selection outside of the experimenting (ie. all white). It might be a bit more difficult to get this approved, though.

  5. #5 Adam
    August 21, 2007

    I’ve always heard that eyes are most sensitive to yellow-green wavelengths. That’s about as close as a biological “preference” as I’ve ever heard.

    There may be gender differences (color blindness comes to mind), though I’d suspect they were fairly small. The obvious follow-up test I heard was proposed is to do a similar experiment with newborns.

  6. #6 Jessica
    August 21, 2007

    There’s an interesting article about this in the July/August edition of _Print_ magazine. It begins:

    Pink was first used as a term in the 17th century to describe the undersaturated scarlet of Dianthus blooms. / By the early 20th century, pink was considered a masculine color–a light red–and mothers were counseled to dress their daughtered in demure Virgin Mary blue.

  7. #7 Dawn
    August 21, 2007

    Not very scientific, but I have some novels, very popular during the Victorian era. One baby, a girl, was given a baby carriage, lined with blue and all the bedding had blue accents to “accent her blue eyes and fair complexion”. Another baby, same family, a boy, received the same thing but with pink accents/bedding because he “was darker complexioned, with dark eyes and hair”. So Pink=girls and blue=boys was not ingrained at that time.

  8. #8 GP
    August 21, 2007

    This actually made the CBC’s “Top Headlines” on their webpage. A friend of mine is a producer for the CBC radio science show “Quirks and Quarks”, and I’ll bet he’s banging his head into a desk somewhere…

  9. #9 p-ter
    August 21, 2007

    Second, it’s just stupid to think you can take 171 brits who have been exposed to this stereotype their entire lives and expect a result to be reflective of some genetic effect.

    from the study:

    A sub-population (37) were mainland Han Chinese (19 male), the majority having left China for the UK within the past year (range 0.5–3 years)[the same result is seen in this subpopulation, see figure 1].

    Actual papers are (almost) always more sensible than popular articles about them. I know this is a blog and all, but you should really read a paper before calling it “nonsense”.

  10. #10 Casmall
    August 21, 2007

    I know this is a blog and all, but you should really read a paper before calling it “nonsense”.
    What do you think the chances are that mainland Chinese have the same color difference stereotypes that we do?
    p-ter, go read LPH’s post, this data is not an appropriately controlled. Even if it were, would be interesting? No, it wouldn’t. Current Biology is a good journal, this paper isn’t worth it.

  11. #11 p-ter
    August 21, 2007

    What do you think the chances are that mainland Chinese have the same color difference stereotypes that we do?

    from the paper:

    while these differences may be innate, they may also be modulated by cultural context or individual experience. In China, red is the color of ‘good luck’, and our Chinese subpopulation gives stronger weighting for reddish colors than the British. Color preference patterns are nonetheless systematically governed by sensory encoding, and, to a significant extent, predictable.

  12. #12 jessica
    August 21, 2007

    Linguistics, anyone?

    Another excerpt from PRINT:

    Blue, a primary color but the rarest in nature, was considered a form of black until about 5,000 BC. In many languages, there is no word for blue; a term referring to both blue and green often suffices for either color.

    From a “the limits of my language are the limits of my world” perspective, PRINT’s notes on the presence of words for pink and blue in various languages implies that not only are our (English–>Germanic/Latin) words not universal (and thus recognition of these colors isn’t universal and thus the way they are mapped onto gender can’t be universal), but they haven’t even existed in our own language for very long, and there is evidence from as recently as a century ago that pink and blue were not considered girl and boy colors, respectively, but in fact the opposite.

  13. #13 jessica
    August 21, 2007

    Not to mention that the division of gender into two clearly defined categories, male and female, is not essential (not guaranteed, not true across all societies and all time periods).

    If the color words are mutable and the gender division is mutable then it seems that the idea that pink=girls and blue=boys would have to also be mutable, even if there weren’t so much other evidence that the association of these colors with gender/roles is a relatively recent fad.

  14. #14 p-ter
    August 21, 2007

    again from the paper:

    The predictability of the individual hue preference curves prompted us to seek more concise descriptors. Principal component analysis reveals that three factors alone explain 79% of the variance across the entire population….While the ‘blue–yellow’ contrast component accounts for the greatest variance across the population (44.5% S?(L+M); 25.5% L?M), the ‘red–green’ contrast component accounts for the greater variance within the male population alone (41% L?M; 28% S–(L+M)). Only the ‘red–green’ weights show a consistent sex difference across all populations.

    note that at least one gene controlling red-green color vision is on the X chromosome (and when mutated, causes red-green colorblindness). does this research still sound like “nonsense”?

  15. #15 Maurice M
    August 21, 2007

    Hey mark,
    Stereotype=Gendered brain and gendered behavior (stereo), so why your flacid PC brain nonense!
    No great mystery, except feminist dogma has eaten your scientific karma.
    Here in Australia, the indigenous people’s have a culture that is longer than any other people on earth.
    Their success was BECAUSE of the acknowledgement of gender differences (stereo), and the tribal institutionalization of such, is the secret of their success.
    Since the Anglo-Saxon culture is amongst the most barbaric in human history, we have to ask why. Could it have to do with a language (English) that does not honour gender differences?
    As for your beard, yes the Australian aboriginal men spent more time away from camp than the women, they needed those beards to protect against the elements.
    AND they spent more time looking for animals, with the background being the BLUE sky.
    AND the women sought out berries and fruit, pink, and red in colour.
    Mark, the problem with Americana, is it’s complete disregard for those who disagree with the US PC brigade, including the evil feminists who are gender confused.
    Fuck off America, your empire is in terminal decline, and start to learn from we indiginous peoples that pink is for girls and blue is for boys!

  16. #16 Janine
    August 22, 2007

    “Evil feminists”! Are we responcible for English not honoring gender difference and for making the Anglo-Saxon so barbaric. Funny, here in the US, all of the wannabe manly men accuse us “evil feminist” of trying to erace gender differences.

    Maurice, my deluded friend, you how bought into Western society ideas about gender differences. The English/American empire lives on in you. Be free you manly man. You have friend like Rush Limbaugh and Micheal Savage here in to US to back up your manhood.

    HA HA

  17. #17 Susan
    August 24, 2007

    I’m female and I’ve always hated the colour pink…I’m also one of those evil feminists, so ya know. I once lived in an apartment where the building manager painted the walls in the hallways an awful “dusty rose” pink colour. He told me the reason why he did this is because he wanted to attract more female tenents to the building and thought that this colour would be most appealing to women. Not a single person in the building, male or female, liked his colour choice.