Saturday, August 25, 2007

Why Women See Red

Well, why this one does, after reading all the silly popularizations of a study which looked at the color preferences of men and women. This headline is fairly typical of the popularizations:

Girls prefer pink, or at least a redder shade of blue

I saw not a single headline based on another of the study's findings: that both sexes preferred blue over other colors, on average. Note that the "girls prefer pink" argument is usually brought to us in tandem with the "boys prefer blue" argument. But evidently that bit is not needed, just as long as we can say that women indeed prefer pink.

Now, who cares what colors people prefer? I don't actually, but I do care about the explanations for the findings:

"Although we expected to find sex differences, we were surprised at how robust they were, given the simplicity of our test," said Anya Hurlbert of Newcastle University, UK. In the test, young adult men and women were asked to select, as rapidly as possible, their preferred color from each of a series of paired, colored rectangles.

The universal favorite color for all people appears to be blue, they found. "On top of that, 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," she said.

Overall, the differences between men and women were clear enough that the seasoned researchers can now usually predict the sex of a participant based on their favorite-color profile.

To begin to address whether sex differences in color preference depend more on biology or culture, the researchers tested a small group of Chinese people amongst the other 171 British Caucasian study participants. The results among the Chinese were similar, Hurlbert said, strengthening the idea that the sex differences might be biological. The explanation might go back to humans' hunter-gatherer days, when women—the primary gatherers--would have benefited from an ability to key in on ripe, red fruits.

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

So we introduce a small group of Chinese volunteers (37 of them, all of whom are immigrants to Britain, by the way) into the study. If these Chinese volunteers also show a similar gender difference then it must be due to biology, right? Well, as long as we won't bother checking what the cultural color biases in China might be, naturally. Then we get a graph like this one (from the actual study):

Notice the high points of the mountain shapes? That's where the average differences by gender are measured. Notice also how far away from each other the British men and women are and how close together the Chinese are. But then the Chinese have lived in Britain only between six months and three years.

And here comes the bit which made me not only see red but caused my jaw to freeze in the "cut-their-throats-position". It is this part: "Evolution may have driven females to prefer reddish colors--reddish fruits, healthy, reddish faces," Hurlbert said. "Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference."

Now, this is pure speculation. We don't actually know if prehistoric women specialized in gathering fruit and vegetables, we just speculate so. Neither do we necessarily know what colors the edibles were that these hypothetical gatherers looked for.

Then there is the idea that only women would be attracted to reddish faces. What happened to all those theories about men looking for some young, healthy breeder-women with natural blush on their cheeks? Now they suddenly appear not to care about that but prefer sorta greenish shades in general.

Or reverse the explanation. If we use evolutionary stuff to explain women's color preferences, why not also use it to explain why men aren't that fond of reddish hues? What possible advantage would men gain from that? I'm sure that something could be invented here. For instance, men would not mind blood so much and wouldn't linger, after killing, to admire it, but would move faster to their next kill. Or ask yourselves why men might prefer greenish shades. Perhaps the ones who hid in the jungle because they liked it didn't get killed by those saber tooth tigers and so their sperm was passed on.

And finally there is the explanation offered for the universal preference for blue:

About the universal preference for blue, "I can only speculate," said Hurlbert. "I would favor evolutionary arguments again here. Going back to our 'savannah' days, we would have a natural preference for a clear blue sky, because it signaled good weather. Clear blue also signals a good water source."

Glad to see the word "speculate" used finally. But even this is quite silly. Why not use present-day explanations for the preference? People living today like clear blue because it's a way of knowing that the day will have good weather ahead.

What makes me angry about study popularizations like these is the extremely low standards the theories are held to. Some guesswork about some prehistoric times is quite adequate, thankyouverymuch. There's nothing in the popularizations about whether cultural explanations have in fact been eliminated in the results and nothing about alternative theories of why color preferences might have a biological basis (if they do). And the authors actually use Simon Baron-Cohen's term "the female brain", which is based on Simon Baron-Cohen's biased quiz or test, a test which uses leading questions to elicit the desired answers.

By the way, I have an evolutionary theory about why women clench their jaws more (never mind if they do): It's because asshat research has been poured down their gullets for so long that clenching is the only alternative not to go bonkers before one has had time to breed.
Thanks to Judith for the original link and to jinny for the pdf file.