The Biology of Pink

Perhaps you don't remember an entry I wrote about a year ago titled Pink Is For Boys, Blue Is For Girls. I linked to a Fairer Science post that was debunking a Times Online editorial suggesting girls had a biologically determined preference for "pink fluff". Fairer Science quoted a June 1918 edition of Ladies Home Journal thus:

There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but 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 prettier for the girl.

Point being, cultural stereotypes are mutable and don't necessarily mean there's some underlying biological (and thus, the implication goes, inescapable) "truth" to them.

And yet...the quest for the biology of pink goes on unabated.

The latest entry is neuroscientists Anya Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling with their study of color preference. The LA Times leads with:

Women's brains seem to be hard-wired to prefer lavender, and men's tend toward blue.

It makes good copy. Too bad their paper doesn't actually support what they are saying to the press. For one thing, the paper shows that both women and men most prefer blue. The other parts of the paper I'll have to pick apart in another post; I'm on my way out of town this afternoon. But it just makes my teeth grind to read crap like this - how the hell did it get published in the first place? - and then see the press lap it up like sugarwater. The press loves nothing more than "science" which shows that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, while boys are all snips and snails and puppy dog tails. Soooooo cute.

More like this

There's been a barrage of stuff like this lately. There's this pink thing, and also a ridiculous study attempting to prove that men can't find their way around in farmers' markets because they were born to be hunters. I don't understand how studies like this get funded, or published. Must be that the media loves to have its prejudices confirmed.

Actually, I think it's that the media loves to confirm other people's prejudices. For some reason, science stories that confirm what everybody already "knows" tend to be the most popular; at least they're the only science stories that I see with any regularity on the "most emailed" page on Yahoo. It's part of the whole 'look at the stupid scientists wasting their time. I could have told them that myself.'

(although in this case, the paper referred to is indeed complete dreck. I do have to ask, though - would it bother you, Zuska, if the findings of this paper were indeed true?)

What's worse than the dreck of the paper is their terrible attempts at evolutionary justification from the lead author. It hurt my brain.

I know I read an article on this subject not that long ago (I'll have to dig to find where) that noted in earlier times (turn of last century) that boys were in pink since it was a lighter shade of red, a masculine color, and girls were in blue (think Disney princesses like Cinderella in blue gown).

My kids were in green and yellow.

By SuzyQueue (not verified) on 23 Aug 2007 #permalink

Brian, if the paper were "true", first I'd want to see if it was replicable, and second I'd want to ask, what's the significance of the finding? You can find a "difference" but does it mean anything? And I guess I'd have to ask this about a lot of "gender differences" research - what's the point? That is, why do we care so much about finding gender differences? Especially when there is so much overlap between the sexes. An interesting paper on this with respect to supposed psychological differences between men and women is "The Gender Similarities Hypothesis" which you can find online at

In a sexist society, the question of gender differences carries a special sort of interest and the results of studies that set out to find such differences are politically weighted. To me, it's problemmatic in the first place that we begin by asking "how do the sexes differ", with the built-in assumption that there must be a difference. In the case of the "pink" study here, the authors were convinced that there must be a difference despite many studies showing that there was none, and they set out to find one. And lo and behold, they did! Even though their crappy data does not actually support what they are saying. Belief that gender differences must exist - and must be meaningful where they do exist - can warp our research agendas and blind us to our own data.

I was reading a mid-1930s issue of Fortune magazine. Until the 1920s, boy babies were given pink blankets and girl babies were given blue blankets. At some point in the late 20s or early 30s, the marketers switched colors. In some cities, some department stores would have pink for boys and blue for girls while others would have it the other way around.

As the article in Fortune noted, one thing we can agree with our grandparents on is that eating safety pins is bad for babies.