Pink or Blue? A Literature Overview of Color & Gender
Have you ever wondered if, apart from societally, color preferences actually correlate with gender? Does this pink or blue binary hold any truth?
There are two opposing sides in the research surrounding color preferences. Many scientists say that genders do not determine color preferences, and others say the opposite, that there is a difference between genders in this sense.
A study dating back to 1941 found there to be gender color preferences for only the colors orange and yellow. Next, further research in 1951 found during a controlled study of over 400 colors, that there was actually NO evidence showing any difference in the color preference ranking of men and women. A more recent study in 2001 tested children, rather than adults, with 9 colors. The study had the child hand the researcher their “favorite” color; again, the results showed no significant effect of gender on color preference. Fast forward, and 4 more studies we came across concluded the same: no significant gender difference in hue preference.
But on the other hand, there have been some studies that found gender differences. One study in 1970 found that females showed a greater preference for warm colors than males and males showed a greater preference for cool colors than females. A 2003 study found that girls significantly preferred pink, purple, and red more than boys, and boys showed a greater preference than girls for black, blue, brown, green, and white. An even more recent study in 2007 found that girls preferred more red hues and disliked more green hues.
Why are the findings surrounding the relationship between gender and color so inconclusive? Furthermore, in the studies showing a gender difference, why might these preferences be the case?
The debate whether gender plays a role in color preferences has been documented and studied as far back as the 1800s. Through adapting environments and categorization, humans aim to simplify and make more room in our cognition and problem-solving abilities. Put simply, we seek to understand the world and individuals around us through labels and categories, this makes our orientation processes far quicker in everyday life. People appear to organize objects into categories for 3 broad reasons.
- Linguistic: A linguistic label provides a cue that a category exists, and people proceed to learn to identify it.
- Feature overlap: People notice that a number of objects overlap substantially and proceed to form a category to include these items.
- Similar function: People notice that a number of objects serve similar functions and proceed to form a category to include them.
These three categorization reasons are not in opposition, but rather, they work together in cognitive processes to streamline our thoughts and behaviors. “Categorization is justified by the observation that objects tend to cluster in terms of their attributes Thus if one can establish that an object is in a category, one is in a position to predict a lot about that object.” The difference between cognition and memory is based on whether a prediction is being made at the individual level or the category level. By using repetitions of individuals rather than the category, we can save time. However, these obviously lead to biases and can lead to misrepresentation. Sound familiar?
In regards to gender, it’s safe to say that we are all aware of the strict dichotomy we have constructed: individuals are either girls or boys, men or women. Though we have come a long way in terms of our understanding of gender, there still seems to be a strange reaction when a female baby is dressed in blue, and vice versa. Why might this be? Orientation. Humans detest being confused or disoriented, so we create our own means of orientation through allotting attributes to different groups.
When babies are born, they all have similar features making it hard to distinguish in our minds which of the two (boy or girl) we think they are. So, we derived a color coordination- boys get blue blankets, girls get pink. Research has documented these color preferences to be culturally influenced, starting in about 1920 in North America. However, there are some other explanations. Gender differences in color preference could also be due to biological factors, or potentially due to gender differences in the evolution of color vision.
The gender differences in color preference are consistent with the evolution of sex-specific behavioral uses of trichromacy (the three independent channels for conveying color information, derived from the three different types of cone cells in the eye). From an evolutionary perspective, gender-specific functional specializations happen due to the created, evolutionary division of labor. This can be seen through the sphere of gender norms in which women gather and take care of children and men hunt and protect (aka hunter-gatherer theory). This theory suggests that female brains should be specialized for gathering-related tasks because of differences in visual-spatial abilities.
Our eyes are super complex, (rods and cones anyone?!) but more specifically- due to our 3 types of cones and other evolved modern adaptations through primate evolution, we see colors in strategic ways. Example: bright colors stand out to us, and can elicit a stronger response. But, why? According to theories: to help us identify ripe, yellow fruit or edible red leaves embedded in green leaves. We see the food we can eat to survive. Taking this a step further, the female brain has honed in on this adaptation to see the food articulately for the purpose of gathering, and therefore it is thought that this could be the reason women prefer objects and colors which are redder in hue and less so those greener. A gatherer would need to see color and be able to identify it more quickly and carefully than say a hunter who is tracking the movement of an animal.
Another thought for this “innate” color preference and a difference in women is the need to see slight changes in skin tone to assess the emotions potential mates or individuals in their care, furthering the theory of an adaptation of color based on a role as a caregiver, and even more empathic.
Though these differences in our eyes and cells may be “innate,” they also may be affected by cultural context or our individual experiences. Comprehensive research done in 2015 is now showing it’s a little more complex than originally thought. It appears that color preference varies with both gender and culture. The findings in this area seem to be rather cyclical.
Across different cultures, individuals prefer different colors and give them different meanings. You may notice that specific colors and color pallets are more prevalent from one culture to the next. For example, in China red is a symbol of good luck, and we see that people in China prefer red than other counties, like the UK.
Many gender differences are thought to be a result of interactions between our innate factors and the socio-cognitive processes that happen as we grow and shape.
One study found that gender differences in color preferences started between 2 and 3 years of age and strengthened near the third birthday. When compared to their adult parents’ preferences, the toddler’s choices were stronger but had more individual variation, meaning they changed their minds more frequently (shocking).
We see that children’s toy preferences can be attributed to gender group identification and social learning. When we, as a society, create the conceptual categories of “masculine” or “feminine,” toys are also influenced by evolved perceptual categories of male-preferred and female-preferred objects. Sociocognitive influences and play with gender-typed toys that happen to be made in gender-typed colors contribute to toddlers’ gender-typed color preferences.
By the age of 2, girls chose pink objects more often than boys did, and by the age of 2.5, they had a significant preference for the color pink over other colors. At the same time, boys showed the opposite. Showing that these differences in young children’s preference for the color pink involve both an increasing attraction to pink by young girls and a growing avoidance of pink by boys.
The evolution and neurobiology of our visual processing and recent findings on sex-dimorphic toy preferences may further suggest that having an innate bias for processing color could contribute to our behaviors in different adaptive ways between the genders. Preferring a certain toy may show a biological preparedness for a “masculine” or “feminine” gender role. A role that develops more fully as early perceptual preferences are coupled with object experiences imposed by contemporary gender socialization. In other words, girls may learn to prefer pink because the toys that they enjoy playing with are often colored pink. So, we are left with a chicken vs. egg situation: are toys made for girls pink because girls prefer pink, or do girls prefer pink because their toys are commonly that color?
Human beings are products of two things: our biology and our conditioning. In some cases, it is incredibly difficult to identify which of these components is coming into play in regards to our characteristics and behaviors, most times it’s both. In terms of color preferences, it appears to be far more a product of our conditioning than our biology. As a society, we often default to liking things because we are told that we do, and disliking things for the same reason.
Ask questions and be mindful of your choices. Liking things that genuinely make us happy versus things that are supposed to make us happy can work wonders on our mental health and our sense of self. Give it a try- Start by mindfully selecting some colors that give you genuine joy, comfort, and other such feelings of well being. Integrate them into your life.