Pink, pink, pink, pink. Pink moan.

August 25th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, evolutionary psychology | 103 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday August 25 2007

I want you to know that I love evolutionary psychologists, because the ideas, like “girls prefer pink because they need to be better at hunting berries” are so much fun. Sure there are problems, like, we don’t know a lot about life in the pleistocene period through which humans evolved; their claims sound a bit like “just so” stories, relying on their own internal, circular logic; the existing evidence for genetic influence on behaviour, emotion, and cognition, is coarse; they only pick the behaviours which they think they can explain while leaving the rest; and they get themselves in massive trouble as soon as they go beyond examining broad categories of human behaviors across societies and cultures, becoming crassly ethnocentric. But that doesn’t stop me enjoying their ideas.

This week every single newspaper in the world lapped up the story that scientists have cracked the pink problem. “At last, science discovers why blue is for boys but girls really do prefer pink” said the Times. And so on.

The study took 208 people in their twenties and asked them to choose their favourite colours between two options, repeatedly, and then graphed their overall preferences. It found overlapping curves, with a significant tendency for men to prefer blue, and female subjects showing a preference for redder, pinker tones. This, the authors speculated (to international excitement and approval) may be because men go out hunting, but women need to be good at interpreting flushed emotional faces, and identifying berries whilst out gathering.

uk.JPG

Now there are some serious problems here. Firstly, the test wasn’t measuring discriminative ability, just preference. I am yet to be given evidence that my girlfriend has the upper hand in discriminating shades of red as we gambol foraging for the fruits of the forest (which we do).

But is colour preference cultural or genetic? Well. The “girls preferring pink” thing is not set in stone, and in fact there are good reasons to suspect it is culturally determined. I have always been led to believe by my father – the toughest man in the world – that pink is the correct colour for mens’ shirts. In fact until very recently blue was actively considered soft and girly, while boys wore pink, a tempered form of fierce, dramatic red.

There is no reason why you should take my word for this. Back in the days when ladies had a home journal (in 1918) the Ladies Home Journal wrote: “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.”

The Sunday Sentinel in 1914 told American mothers: “If you like the color note on the little one’s garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” Some sources suggest it wasn’t until the 1940s that the modern gender associations of girly pink became universally accepted. Pink is, therefore, perhaps not biologically girly. Boys who were raised in pink frilly dresses went down mines and fought in World War 2. Clothing conventions do change over time.

But within this study, was the preference stable across cultures? Well no, not even in this experiment, where they had some Chinese test subjects too. For these participants, not only were the differences in the overlapping curves not so extreme; but the favourite colours were a kind of red for boys and a bit pinker for girls (not blue); and they had more of a red preference overall. Red, you see, is a lucky colour in contemporary Chinese culture.

china.JPG

And also snuggled away in the paper was the information that femininity scores on the Bem Sex Role Inventory correlated significantly with colour preference. Now the BSRI is a joy from the 1970s, a self-rated test explicitly designed to measure how much you adhere to socially desirable, stereotypically masculine and feminine personality characteristics (do it on yourself here).

You mark on the score sheet from one to seven how much you feel you suit words like theatrical, assertive, sympathetic, adaptable, or tactful; and then your score is totted up at the end. So women who describe themselves as “yielding” “cheerful” “gullible”, “feminine” and “do not use harsh language” also prefer pink. Thanks for the warning, I’ll try and use that to avoid them in future.

It’s worth being critical and thoughtful about these stories, not because it’s fun to be mean: but because that’s what the authors would want, and also because stories about genes and culture are an important part of the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are, our sense of personal responsibility, and the inevitability in our gender roles.

· Please send your bad science to bad.science@guardian.co.uk
References:

The academic paper is here:

Biological components of sex differences in color preference
Current Biology, Volume 17, Issue 16, 21 August 2007, Pages R623-R625
Anya C. Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling

dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.022

Unless you have an Athens login, you are not allowed to read what the researchers actually said, instead of what the media said they said. Because although they are publicly funded academics at the University of Newcastle, and although this work has been publicised in every major mainstream media outlet in Britain and the US, and although the journal is edited by academics you fund, and paid for by subscriptions from university libraries… the actual academic article is behind a paywall, with a payment model geared towards institutions, rather than interested individuals.

Bad luck you. I guess you have to rely on journalists.

Jo Paoletti has written at length on gender, colour and clothing, an accessible article is here:

www.gentlebirth.org/archives/pinkblue.html

A pair of free-to-access vaguely bookish reviews of colour and gender here and here.

And here is an instructive vintage clipping courtesy of Prof Paoletti:

pinkorblue.JPG


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103 Responses



  1. jackpt said,

    August 25, 2007 at 1:41 am

    As Elsie DeWolfe said on first seeing the Acropolis “It’s beige! My colour!”.

  2. Nellie Dean said,

    August 25, 2007 at 6:59 am

    15 years ago there was some discussion in New Scientist about men wearing red ties. The theory is that red-tie-wearers are signally their blokehood.

  3. BSM said,

    August 25, 2007 at 8:13 am

    To put it another way, “Study shows *that* girls prefer pink” would not get its authors the headlines prompted by “Study shows *why* girls produce pink”.

    Someone really should establish an “International Journal of the Bleedin’ Obvious” so we have one accessible and respectable source to check whether apples fall from trees and bears shit in the woods.

  4. Chris said,

    August 25, 2007 at 8:21 am

    The original article in the Times also confuses the evidence with the hypothesis. Certainly the title “At last, science discovers why blue is for boys but girls really do prefer pink” leads you to suppose that the researchers have discovered the reason for colour preference. In fact, all they actually found was the existence of a colour preference in the subjects they tested. In the article itself, the author was a little more careful and hedged about his assertions with “may”, “might” or “could”. Nevertheless, the average member of the public is likely to come away from the article thinking the title sums it all up. Another example of the media distorting and misrepresenting science.

  5. mikestanton said,

    August 25, 2007 at 8:35 am

    Help! I am going out hunting today. If I wear my pink shirt that should fool the animals into thinking I am looking for berries. But, apart from the blue whale, are there any creatures out there that match my colour preferences?

  6. BobP said,

    August 25, 2007 at 9:30 am

    I think htere is a blue-cheeked baboon. (That’s not the cheek on its face, though, it’s the other one)

  7. Nebbish said,

    August 25, 2007 at 9:30 am

    The actual colours associated with names of colours fluctuate over time. Pink once referred to a much brighter, darker colour than what we now call pink (the flesh tones the writer of the extract above refers to), hence hunting jackets that we would call bright red are, for historical reasons, called pinks.

  8. Steevl said,

    August 25, 2007 at 9:30 am

    IANA botanist, but aren’t pinky red berries more likely to be poisonous?

    Also not sure why men need to be attracted to unemotional, blue-tinged faces. Or perhaps they are just hunting blue animals.

  9. Gimpy said,

    August 25, 2007 at 9:30 am

    If you fancy a laugh then The Guardian has an alternate take on this research from the reliably bonkers Zoe Williams.
    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2153823,00.html

    mike772: I don’t think newspapers have reproduced the graphs because the paper is behind a paywall so I don’t think many of the journalists writing about it will have bothered to read it.
    The Economist have an interesting article on it this week and they probably did read it.
    www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9682588

  10. projektleiterin said,

    August 25, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Hmm, interesting this article about the reversed preference for blue and pink nearly a decade ago. I can’t help to say that pink does strike me as quite girly and that pink and frills seems like a combination made in heaven. If this is the product of cultural influence then I’m impressed.

    I’m not really a fan of evolutionary psychology, but in my case up till now it has been more based on personal anecdotes than critique on the methodology.

    Here’s a blog post pro evolutionary psychology with a review of John Alcock’s The Triumph of Sociobiology:

    dangerousintersection.org/?p=1514

    At the moment I’m undecided. Both sides seem to have good points.

  11. jjbp said,

    August 25, 2007 at 10:19 am

    wrt the change of what pink means… I have been doing some work on historic pigments, and the word pink is used to described a yellow colour too. e.g. dutch pink (careful Googling that one…)aka stil-de-grain or English pink or even brown pink.

  12. BobP said,

    August 25, 2007 at 10:22 am

    I have a better theory. Back in the days before clothes were invented, the female of the species used to stay in the cave and tend the fire. The warmth generated by this activity gave her epidermis a reddish or pinkish hue. The male of the species, or course, was roaming naked across the steppes hunting and gathering; the coldness of this activity gave him a bluish tinge. At the end of the day, he returns to the cave; he beholds a pink female (and she beholds a blue male) leading to irresistable mutual attraction and successful reproductive activity.

    Therefore this is an evolutionary adaptation to clothing; females *wear* pink, and they are *attracted* to blue.

  13. BobP said,

    August 25, 2007 at 10:24 am

    Maybe I’m getting mixed up with the baboons again ….

  14. Johnbax said,

    August 25, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Good piece. This is bad science because it doesn’t acknowledge the role of culture in shaping human behaviour – and that cultures vary historically and geographically. This is a common fault amongst scientists, I’m afraid – wishing to believe in the absolute truth of science, they instinctively reject any hint of cultural relativism, leading to laughably elementary errors like this. Unfortunately, many people like me who work in the ‘humanities’ assume, wrongly, that this is how all scientists think. No wonder they have such a poor opinion of science. It’s good to see you turning to the authority of (albeit fairly low-level) cultural history to refute some bad science. But will you take the next step and acknowledge that sometimes cultural relativism applies not just to gender identities and colour preferences, but to science itself – or is this a step too far?

  15. Gimpy said,

    August 25, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    16. Johnbax. I think you are a little harsh on the paper. While the authors hypotheses resulting from the conclusions are a little dubious their results do show that the same gender difference exists between UK and Chinese populations. Whether that difference has its origin in specifically cultural or biological factors or a combination of both is open to debate but the difference between genders has been shown to be statistically significant when investigated using this methodology. Don’t like the methodology? Design a better one and try and replicate the results of this experiment. That’s how science progresses. Dismissing results out of hand as being the product of cultural relativism is unhelpful.

  16. Ambrielle said,

    August 25, 2007 at 12:07 pm

    Wow, Zoe Williams got thrashed for her article :)

  17. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 25, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Gimpy:

    If you fancy a laugh then The Guardian has an alternate take on this research from the reliably bonkers Zoe Williams.

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2153823,00.html

    i think what annoyed me about that (i’ve not met zoe but i often quite like her stuff) is that once again it was the familiar story:

    1. media selectively reports slightly “wacky” research misleadingly,

    2. media then attacks scientists for being irrelevant remote boffins

    it’s a very well trodden path:

    www.badscience.net/?p=172

  18. Johnbax said,

    August 25, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    Gimpy. As Ben pointed out, the gender difference in China is very differently skewed from that in the UK. But I’m not doubting the statistical findings, or the methodology that produced them, but the interpretation placed on the results which was, frankly, crass. If the media reports got it right, it was the researchers who dismissed cultural explanations out of hand, preferring some pseudo-evolutionary story based on our ancestors hunting for berries etc. The kind of thing people come up with in pub conversations who don’t know what they’re talking about.

    I think Ben’s got it right here, and most of the contributors to this thread seem to be overlooking what he actually said about ‘evolutionary psychologists': ‘they get themselves in massive trouble as soon as they go beyond examining broad categories of human behaviors across societies and cultures, becoming crassly ethnocentric.’ Precisely – and in doing so they discard a lot of knowledge and understanding of human cultures that has built up over the centuries, but in disciplines which scientists habitually disdain. Gimpy, if I understand you aright you seem to be saying that research is all just a matter of getting the methodology right. If only. Results are one thing – explaining them is quite another, and in the case of human behaviour, rather more complicated.

  19. zooloo said,

    August 25, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    My uncle is Italian, when his son was born he gave away sugared almonds.

    He would have given away pink ones because it was a boy, he gave away light blue because that’s what we do.

    I don’t know if it still holds true but then in Italy pink was for boys, blue for girls.

  20. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 25, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    would you like to see what the researchers actually said, instead of what the media said they said?

    you can’t. because although they are publicly funded academics at the university of newcastle, and although this work has been publicised in every major mainstream media outlet in britain and the US, and although the journal is edited by academics, and paid for by subscriptions from university libraries, the actual academic article is behind a paywall.

    bad luck you. i guess you have to rely on journalists.

    here’s one bit of it.

    “Thus, while both males and females share a natural preference for ‘bluish’ contrasts, the female preference for ‘reddish’ contrasts further shifts her peak towards the reddish region of the hue circle: girls’ preference for pink may have evolved on top of a natural, universal preference for blue. We speculate that this sex difference arose from sex-specific functional specializations in the evolutionary division of labour. The hunter-gatherer theory proposes that female brains should be specialized for gathering-related tasks and is supported by studies of visual spatial abilities [7]. Trichromacy and the L–M opponent channel are ‘modern’ adaptations in primate evolution thought to have evolved to facilitate the identification of ripe, yellow fruit or edible red leaves embedded in green foliage [8]. It is therefore plausible that, in specializing for gathering, the female brain honed the trichromatic adaptations, and these underpin the female preference for objects ‘redder’ than the background. As a gatherer, the female would also need to be more aware of color information than the hunter. This requirement would emerge as greater certainty and more stability in female color preference, which we find. An alternative explanation for the evolution of trichromacy is the need to discriminate subtle changes in skin color due to emotional states and social-sexual signals [9]; again, females may have honed these adaptations for their roles as care-givers and ‘empathizers’ [10].”

  21. Gimpy said,

    August 25, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    19. Ben Goldacre.
    I too quite like Zoe’s stuff when she writes about things she knows about or experiences but she has an unfortunate track record of being completely clueless on science resulting in her forays into that area are usually torn apart.

    20.
    Johnbax I think you misunderstand me slightly (as I misunderstood you first time round). This is a very short paper and the conclusions are flawed for all the reasons stated above but at least it’s an attempt to assess and express gender differences in a mathematical way. It should be possible to use the authors methodology to compare all the cultures of the world (if they can be rigidly defined) to see if the differences in curves between genders stays the same. If you wanted to see how the masculinity/feminity of someone’s brains effects their colour choice then you would have to isolate the biological factors that contribute to this and see if they correlate with colour choice. This is no doubt incredible difficult but it is feasible, and if the environmental influence could be controlled, could refute or support the authors notion of gender specific colour preferences. This would still leave the problems with evolutionary psychology but at least we’d be more informed about relative biological and environmental contributions to behaviour.

  22. pv said,

    August 25, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    zooloo said,

    August 25, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    “My uncle is Italian, when his son was born he gave away sugared almonds.
    He would have given away pink ones because it was a boy, he gave away light blue because that’s what we do.
    I don’t know if it still holds true but then in Italy pink was for boys, blue for girls.”

    In Italy blue is for boys and pink is for girls. When a boy is born the parents stick blue ribbons in the windows and on their balconies and doors, not to mention the front gate, car barrier, garage door etc. If it’s a girl then the ribbons are pink and just as numerous.

  23. Fan Gao Rui said,

    August 25, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    In China, the traditional colour is not just any red, but *zhu* – an intense vermillion.

    We tend to dress our babies in zhu clothes and at least part of a blanket or cradle decoration will be this colour. I notice that in England, baby girls are dressed almost always in light pink, and housed in rooms decorated in pink with pink details and for boys everything is in shades of blue. I wonder whether the predominant colour to which a baby is exposed in its first couple of years affects its later preference?

  24. Johnbax said,

    August 25, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    23 Gimpy. I agree that it would tell us quite a lot if we could isolate the biological from the cultural factors. However, to say that this is incredibly difficult to do is something of an understatement. A bit like the fictional Blue Peter sketch where ‘this week we show you how to cure all known diseases and settle the Middle East conflict’. The nature/culture issue has run and run, and so far has proved very resistant to statistical methodologies, however sophisticated. I think it was the research team’s apparent naivety about this that Ben was getting at, when he produced evidence that the blue/pink thing was the other way round in the quite recent past.

  25. acb58 said,

    August 25, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Back in 1963 I had to make a cover for my school bible. I was given a ‘choice’ of pink or blue. I chose pink but was told I could not ‘choose’ that colour because I was a boy. I must say that religion was then on a very slippery slope of ‘belief’ from then onwards!

  26. projektleiterin said,

    August 25, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    Oops, I said “decade”, I meant “century”.

    By the way, what is so bad about Zoe William’s comment? It seems the purpose of this comment was to express her opinion on the results of the study, not offer a scientific evaluation of it.

  27. Gimpy said,

    August 25, 2007 at 5:09 pm

    26. Johnbax.
    Ok, I agree it’s a pretty tough thing to do but what’s wrong with trying? Perhaps a start could be made by seeing whether ape species also show gender specific colour preferences. In a lab it would be relatively easy to control the environment in which baby apes were brought up in. If there existed clear differences between gender in apes then that would be some evidence in support of similar phenomena in humans. I had a quick browse of PubMed to see if anybody had done such research and I couldn’t find any. So there’s a grant opportunity for someone.

  28. A.S. said,

    August 25, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    If one compares the English and the Chinese data, the commonality is a shift towards the red end of the spectrum in the color preferences of women. The difference is (a) that the shift is more extreme for the English subjects than for the Chinese subjects and that (b) the Chinese preferences are generally found more towards the red end.

    One good explanation of these data would be the one mentioned in the passage from the paper that Ben cites in #22: that there is a general preference for blue that is shifted towards reddish hues for women. This would be the universal aspect of the data, and hence the one for which one would like to have an adaptationist explanation.

    The fact that the Chinese as a whole prefer more reddish hues as well as the fact that the preference for reddish hues seems to hone in on pinkish colors for English women would seem to be a culture-specific aspect, to be explained by cultural influences.

    This makes the explanandum for evolutionary psychologists much less specific (they can ignore the question of specific reddish hues and they do not necessarily need to find an explanation for why men prefer bluish hues).

    From this perspective, the need to discriminate non-green things in the process of gathering plant foods is not a completely silly candidate, if it can be shown that in a “typical” stone-age culture women do the bulk of food gathering and that (b) men do not need to discriminate non-green things while hunting. Now, (a) sounds quite plausible in light of what I know about stone-age cultures, but (b) strikes me as implausible (most animals that are hunted for food seem to have reddish-brownish furs). The “emotions” explanation is also not a completely silly candidate if it can be shown that, in a typical stone-age culture, it is more important for women than it is for men to identify the emotional state of other people. Again, this does not immediately strike me as plausible but that does not mean it isn’t true.

    @30 Gimpy: That is an intrguing suggestion, but it would yield a relevant answer only if it can be shown that the different evolutionary pressures on male and female apes were the same as those on male and female humans. I doubt that this is possible. Instead, I think a promising approach would be to test neonates using a preferential viewing task, as “DrGB” suggested in the comment thread of the Zoe Williams article.

  29. Lerrup said,

    August 25, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    You see the problem with culture is that you don´t know where it comes from these days…

    As an example, the white wedding. When did this become the only thing to do? I don´t know, but I do know that it only became so in the far-east with the spread of American culture and was not universal in the UK even in the 1950´s.

    But, if you wanted to do some sort of preference test re wedding dress colour in many parts of the world it would know be white. This would be purely cultural (even in other cultures).

    I also have not been told where the Chinese participants in the study where from. I would suggest that a middle class person from Hong Kong would show different cultural influences to a Chinese smallholder somewhere deep in the hinterland.

    In any case, why bother with preferences? Surely, ability to differentiate colours would be more interesting for this just so story?

  30. Lerrup said,

    August 25, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    …or even now be white…

  31. Robert Carnegie said,

    August 25, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    What about common colour blindness being mostly male? I seem to recall the same argument was given for that, alongside “the pigment genes are on the X chromosome, so women have twice as many chances to have the right ones”.

    Do you fancy getting a petition up to have some of these genes put onto the Y, that’ll show them, alongside the ones for map reading and not talking until the adverts.

    Beyond that, I wonder how far the influence may have reached of the cartoon movies (I believe there were several stork stories), Peter Pan (I’d have to check) or Max Bygraves.

  32. amoebic vodka said,

    August 26, 2007 at 1:39 am

    They did account for colour blindness – they screened the test subjects for normal colour vision.

    Their conclusions are odd, given the difference between the Chinese and UK groups. That there is this difference would suggest that culture etc is having at least a comparable effect on their results, but they barely mention it.

  33. lauredhel said,

    August 26, 2007 at 10:25 am

    “I also have not been told where the Chinese participants in the study where from. I would suggest that a middle class person from Hong Kong would show different cultural influences to a Chinese smallholder somewhere deep in the hinterland.”

    They were mainland Han Chinese. But they were not mainland Han Chinese born and raised and tested in China; they were immigrants to Britain, making the supposed demonstration of “cross-cultural” similarities pretty much a complete crock. By choosing this methodology, all the researchers seem to have demonstrated is a probable dose-response relationship to the effects of socialisation on colour preference.

  34. jesroddy said,

    August 26, 2007 at 11:49 am

    Only marginally relevant, but I do recall that the colour “pink” is a recent word. Opinions differ but in general it is accepted that the word “pink” comes from the dutch word for small as in uses such as “pinky” for the little finger. The garden “Pink” ie Dianthus was a small carnation type plant and the word “pink” gradually migrated to mean the colour (of the flower) rather than its small size.

  35. MT said,

    August 26, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    Couldn’t you do a piece about the endeminc misrepresentation of evolutionary science within the media?

  36. Martin said,

    August 27, 2007 at 4:04 am

    One problem with the article, which hasn’t really been mentioned before (although @31 AS touched upon it) is whether in the past men were the hunters and women were the gatherers. As far as I’m aware, the ‘poor little fragile woman’ is a relatively recent invention. Native American and Australian Aborigine cultures shocked the invading westerners, as they had no problem with the women hunting. If food is scarce, everyone’s involved in the hunt; you can’t afford such niceties.

  37. MT said,

    August 27, 2007 at 10:02 am

    @ Martin – There need not be any implication of gathering as being ‘fragile’ – life was tough whatever you were doing. It might not seem as dynamic to you, but the inference of ‘poor little fragile woman’ is from a bygone age and doesn’t exist anymore. Evolutionary theory does not cast women in a weak passive role and in that sense it is righting decades of male bias within science that assigned with a passive role in the evolution of our species, when nothing could be further from the truth.

    I study Darwinian gender studies and am researching further study. I have had many discussions with ‘traditional/ideological’ feminists who look on evolutionary theory as the work of the anti-christ. I endlessly have to go over very basic stuff such as the naturalistic fallacy and the difference between is and ought, but it very rarely gets through.. In fact the more formally educated (within the humanities) the feminist, male or female, the more likely they are not to be able to grasp these fundamental tools and the more likely they are to read ideological or political motives to unbiased studies themselves – as Zoe Williams always does for instance.

    I happen to believe that feminism, contrary to popular belief, still an indispensable humanitarian movement, can dig itself out of the ideological and intellectual blind alley it has been mired in for some time now, via evolutionary theory. If anyone is interested a woman called Griet Vandemassen out of Ghent University wrote her doctoral thesis on this question which was published in 2005 as ‘Who’s afraid of Charles Darwin: Debating Feminism and Evolutionary theory’

    I overreacted in my post yesterday, and I apologise. I lost my focus with the thought that the Zoe Williams set would be grasping at this piece and again calling for the lynching of Ev theory as a whole, which is the usual reaction. But I am really confused about what Ben is trying to do here. Is it just this paper or the whole adaptionist programme that he is sus about?

  38. projektleiterin said,

    August 27, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    I have had many discussions with ‘traditional/ideological’ feminists who look on evolutionary theory as the work of the anti-christ.

    That’s too funny, just the other day I said that most women seem to hate evolutionary psychology, while guys just love it. MT, do they get upset, because they consider evolutionary psychology to show serious scientific flaws or is it because a lot of the guys excuse poor male behavior with, “That’s just the way nature made us. It’s in our genes to cheat and look for younger women. It’s not our fault, hallelujah!”

  39. MT said,

    August 27, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    There is a lot of that. They do seem to think that the whole project is only there to justify sexism. I have never read anything to back up this suspicion within EP, EB or the whole of ET – most are quoting Stephen Rose in his critique of Dawkin’s Selfish Gene but attribute it to Dawkins himself, or Pinker, or Wright or whoever. They do not want to hear that evolutionary theory provides possible explanations, not excuses – that it is descriptive not prescriptive. If someone decides to cheat on his partner he cannot blame it on an evolutionary predisposition. What gets me is why does feminism give this kind of rubbish precedence over what Dawkins and Pinker are actually saying? Men are not excused to exploit females (or other men who they exploit much much more) via ev theory. The fact that human’s are highly evolved and profoundly moral animals is central to evolutionary theory, but one many people chose to ignore.

    Can I just ask, is it just evolutionary psych that people believe to be flawed – or evolutionary biology – or both? I was fortunate to study under Helena Cronin and she always demanded a high standard of proof.

  40. simongates said,

    August 27, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Ben, nice article but GREAT title. I saw it written and I saw it say…

  41. Littleshim said,

    August 28, 2007 at 12:26 am

    A.S.,

    one problem is that they haven’t actually compared different cultures very well – a very limited sample, and what you might call cross-cultural interference because the Chinese group are apparently immigrants to the UK.

    “One good explanation of these data would be the one mentioned in the passage from the paper that Ben cites in #22: that there is a general preference for blue that is shifted towards reddish hues for women. This would be the universal aspect of the data, and hence the one for which one would like to have an adaptationist explanation.

    The fact that the Chinese as a whole prefer more reddish hues as well as the fact that the preference for reddish hues seems to hone in on pinkish colors for English women would seem to be a culture-specific aspect, to be explained by cultural influences.”

    But why should the Chinese preference be the ‘culture specific aspect’? How very ethnocentric. In fact, from the descriptions above (having not been able to read the article) I’d be tempted to suggest quite the opposite: a ‘general preference for red/pink’ (prevalent across gender and culture boundaries), but with a culture-specific shift toward blues in Western men.

    Of course, my analysis is just as meaningless, since the cultural bias is so strong as to make the whole thing meaningless without far more data. And since I can’t read the article, maybe they had better reason for their argument than I do. Looks like I’ll never know.

  42. MT said,

    August 28, 2007 at 9:12 am

    RC, a few decades ago science did have a chauvinistic slant. But work carried out by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and others began to challenge this bias about 20 years ago. From what I have read does seem that this bias has been attended to. The feminists were right about an androcentric view of human biology, and this view does still seem resonate within the popular consciousness, hence the quite common attempt by some people to excuse their own immoral behaviour, be it crime, rape or simply cheating, on evolutionary mechanisms. But feminist opinion of evolutionary theory has remained stuck in the past while ET has moved on. The special pleading to ‘feminise’ science, as though women are some how lacking in the ability to appreciate logic was always a political strategy to try and even up the bias – but it would have had catastrophic consequences for civilisation. I’m not even sure if it was ever anything more than rhetoric, or a thought experiment anyway. Vandermassen goes through the various feminist challenges on science and also lists the quite shockingly misogynist ideas that did pass as science once upon a time.

    Martin, as far as I’m aware women did do the majority of gathering, and more to the fact, gathering actually sustained a group nutritionally much more than hunting. Some females probably did go hunting; tomboys would have been around even then, but think of it logically; once they had a child would this be possible? Hunting forays sometimes lasted for days, and also if she were of childbearing age she would definitely have been at risk from sexual attack. The risks would have been too great. There are today some cultures where, if a man discovers a woman of childbearing age, rape is the expected outcome. An explanation of why women like to go around in groups, maybe – even to the loo!? (Goldacre is going to hate me for that one, isn’t he)

  43. wilsontown said,

    August 28, 2007 at 10:32 am

    Personally, I didn’t think that this was such a paper. I think it has shown a difference in colour preference between men and women, which is at least interesting. It hasn’t really shown us anything about why that is the case, though. So I think the question is, is there room for speculation in academic journal articles? I think as long as as it is clearly identified as speculation (which it is in the Hurlbert and Ling paper), speculation can be useful. It gives us hypotheses to test.

    Now someone just has to figure out a way of testing them…

  44. MT said,

    August 28, 2007 at 11:53 am

    A review of ‘Alas Poor darwin’ and defense of Evolutionary psychology here by Oliver Curry at the LSE. It’s short so don’t be put off.

    “…(T)he Roses do not show that evolutionary psychology rests on any “shaky empirical evidence” or “flawed premises”…Nevertheleass, mud sticks, and so in the short term the Roses will no doubt succeed in misleading the public and media about evolutinary psychology.”

    human-nature.com/nibbs/03/curry.html

  45. wilsontown said,

    August 28, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Heh, meant to write ‘not such a bad paper’.

  46. A Reader said,

    August 28, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    Years and years ago, one of the evpsych lot (it might have been Pinker, actually) wrote a piece for a major paper on why men were programmed to be promiscuous and women to be faithful. The paper then published a letter from me suggesting that as women are multi-orgasmic while men tend to fall asleep after their one shot, women were clearly designed to shag around as much as possible while their loyal mate snored on, dreaming of fatherhood. Seems blooming obvious to me, but strangely my argument never caught on in that male-dominated field.

  47. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 28, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    hahah a review by oliver curry?

    human-nature.com/nibbs/03/curry.html

    you mean the “all men will have big willies” guy?

    www.badscience.net/?p=316

  48. ronaldvr said,

    August 28, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    Ben Goldacre:

    I have always been led to believe by my father – the toughest man in the world – that pink is the correct colour for mens’ shirts. In fact until very recently blue was actively considered soft and girly, while boys wore pink, a tempered form of fierce, dramatic red.

    Obviously you have misunderstood something here: Wearing pink is to attract the girls!

  49. MT said,

    August 28, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Yes Ben:), I’m not saying he’s perfect (who is) but the review does address much of the Rose derived criticisms of EP that people tend to blindly ‘assert’ rather than argue.

    A Reader, men are observed to be more promiscuous than women, but women are certainly not programmed to be ‘faithful’ – just *less* promiscuous than men. They are both generally monogamous creatures too, regardless of this.

    There are many complcated biological explanations for this. And you musn’t forget, although the myth in our sex saturated times is that sex is freely available any and everywhere and for everyone, it is still a very limited resource mostly controlled by female choosiness (note choosiness not *coyness*).

    .

  50. otheus said,

    August 28, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    The study’s result fly in the face of the obvious, and thus the data need be much more convincing. What is counter-intuitive is that red is not a color men would be biologically and physiologically predisposed to. There are very well-known, long-standing associations between red hues and sex such as the reason red-light districts have red lights. More cruicially, I believe, is the point that in women of all races and all cultures have pink-to-red vaginal labia. The ability to recognize and act upon the sight of such a color would certainly yield an inheritable advantage over men who did not so readily identify and “prefer” such a hue.

    Perhaps because the authors are women, science is now suffering from *gasp* gender bias.

  51. ForeverAutumn said,

    August 28, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    The basic premise of evolutionary psychology – that the human mind and many of its resultant behaviours are products of evolution – is pretty non-controversial (assuming of course you accept the basic premises of evolution in the first place).

    However, the mere existence of a specific behaviour or preference says nothing about whether it results from genetic hardwiring, cultural programming, or some mixture of both. Certainly, if a preference is widespread across many unrelated cultures –for example, a liking for sweet food – that is a good indication that it has some evolutionary underpinning. But the existence of a preference in two small groups encompassing two cultures that have heavily influenced each other – for example, a liking for raw fish among both Japanese and Californians – shows nothing of the sort.

    This nature/culture issue seems to be particularly fraught and politicized when it comes to differences between the sexes. Certainly it is silly to ignore evidence of such differences because of “political correctness”. If a trait is shown to be widespread across many different cultures – for example, a tendency for males to be more physically aggressive – then there is likely to be some evolutionary reason. But the existence of a trait among related cultures – for example, a tendency for women in both Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia to appear in public less often than their menfolk – then culture is a far more likely explanation.

    There seems to be a new kind of “political correctness” arising. There is a tendency in certain parts of the media to leap on studies that conform to their “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” thesis. Any suggestion that humans have in fact rather a moderate sexual differentiation, and that culture may actually have some impact, is shouted down with charges of “political correctness” and “feminist opinion”. Compare for example the publicity that followed this “girls love pink cos of the berries” story with another recent study that found the average number of words per day spoken by women was not significantly different to the number spoken by men.

  52. ForeverAutumn said,

    August 28, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    Report about the male/female chattiness study:
    www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070705152953.htm

  53. NYC EMS said,

    August 28, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    Wrap your baby up in the lugerious color…….jet black.

    I wounder what the psychological impact that would have on our little bundle of joy.

  54. Eddie said,

    August 28, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Excellent use of Nick Drake in the title!

  55. MT said,

    August 28, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Sorry, it’s long – I’m a twat.

    O – Enlighten me; what are these “…very well-known, long-standing associations between red hues and sex” other than red-light districts. I thought the red light was to help maintain anonimity – I accept I could be wrong. Just a note though, female humans are not baboons. They have pretty concieled ‘bits’ so how they would act as a red rag to a bull I’m not sure. (Apologies for the red rag allusion in this particular context;)

    I think your claim of a *female* gender bias is a bit of a stab in the dark to be honest, unless you want to back it up with evidence.

    FA – “Universal variability
    One implication of the evolutionary psychologists’ view that the human mind took its current form in the Pleistocene is that all modern humans share a universal human nature. But how do evolutionary psychologists reconcile this claim with the manifest diversity of behaviour and culture found around the world? The answer is that psychological mechanisms are ‘condition dependent’ — that is, the behaviour they produce will be different under different conditions. Suppose, for example, that human psychology operates in part according to the rule “If resources are scarce, then adopt a more aggressive approach to acquiring them”. On this basis one might expect overt levels of aggression to vary according to the current economic or ecological circumstances of the people under consideration. Evolutionary psychologists look at, amongst other things, permutations in behaviour in order to work out what the underlying rules are and how they operate. This research, which necessarily involves cross-cultural studies, commits evolutionary psychologists to a strongly “environmentalist” position: the idea that differences in behaviour are largely the product of differences in environmental — physical, social or cultural — factors.” from Oliver Curry’s review – link above

    The practice of coveting women (and their sexuality) is explicable via an evolutionary lens and is a pan-cultural phenomenon. It is only very recently that women have gained unlimited freedon of movement in the West and dress codes were relaxed and women allowed protection under the law as individuals, don’t forget.

    I really don’t know what you mean by “a new kind of political correctness” – You may be confusing popular discourse with scientific discourse, where no such thing exists. The ‘men are from mars’ stuff is really insidious rubbish that has nothing to do with the scientific study of gender difference, especially in Ev theory. Men and women are not evolved from different planets, I can assure you and the battle of the sexes arises out of the pretty great cooperative endeavour that is human sexual reproduction (I’m paraphrasing Cronin there).

    And there is no biological/environmental (inc.cultural) dichotomy – genes are influenced by both! Culture does have an impact – no one, I assure you who knows what they are talking about, would say that it didn’t! Gods teeth man!

  56. CaptainKirkham said,

    August 28, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    How about a slightly more basic question – is there any actual reason to suspect that there is a fundamental biological colour preference rule based on gender? Why would there be? What purpose would it serve?

    For the record, pink is one of my least favourite colours. Yet somehow I still have two X chromosomes.

  57. MT said,

    August 28, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    I think the paper make it clear what purpose it would serve – or more correctly, what purpose it perhaps *did* serve Whether it is accurate remains to be seen.

    Goldacre should probably explain about statistical significance; I am only a lay person myself here.

    All I would broach is that if pink was found to be preferred by females in statistically relevant numbers, that isn’t the same as asserting that all females *should* like pink, something I don’t think this paper does anyway. Like I say, it is descriptive not prescriptive.

  58. MT said,

    August 28, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    ..and for the record, I too have two X chromosomes..and never liked pink but don’t mind it now – in small doses:)

  59. A.S. said,

    August 28, 2007 at 7:45 pm

    @ 46 Littleshim

    “one problem is that they haven’t actually compared different cultures very well – a very limited sample, and what you might call cross-cultural interference because the Chinese group are apparently immigrants to the UK.”

    True, but you could argue that since they did find a statistically significant difference, the samples were large enough and the cross-cultural interference cannot have been very strong. I agree that it would be desirable to use truly “monocultural” subjects.

    “But why should the Chinese preference be the ‘culture specific aspect’? How very ethnocentric. In fact, from the descriptions above (having not been able to read the article) I’d be tempted to suggest quite the opposite: a ‘general preference for red/pink’ (prevalent across gender and culture boundaries), but with a culture-specific shift toward blues in Western men.”

    Fine by me. I followed the argument from the original paper that a preference for blue is the default and some posts that mentioned a special cultural significance of the color red in China. However, the direction you propose might well have a more plausible explanation.

  60. otheus said,

    August 28, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    MT – Hrm, I thought it would have been obvious. Okay, perhaps the lay scientists need to get out more…. Q: What type and color of flower are girls given by their beaus on special occasions? Red roses. Q: Of what shape and color are the icons that fill love notes? Red-filled “hearts”. Q: The most common shade of lipstick? A: Green. No, just kidding. Can anyone else think of a color more associated with sex and sexual desire?

    As for gender bias, I also thought it would have been obvious that females would not relate in the same way a man would in seeing or dreaming about a woman’s pussy labia.

  61. clobbered said,

    August 28, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    @39 – I am also wondering whether it is valid to screen out colour blindness, especially given the huge gender imbalance between rates of colour blindness (we are talking about factors of 10-50 more colour blindness in men, no?).

    And I would really be a lot more impressed if their cultural control was some isolated tribe rather than Chinese people already exposed to Western cultural norms.

  62. MT said,

    August 28, 2007 at 10:35 pm

    Hmm, well you have a unique perspective on that – I’ll leave you to your daydreams.

  63. Despard said,

    August 29, 2007 at 9:11 am

    #68, 39: it’s perfectly valid to screen out colour-blindness in this case because it’s a confound. If you’re investigating colour vision, you do it in that part of the population that has normal colour vision! If someone can’t see the full colour spectrum, how are you supposed to get meaningful data from them?

    Many of my experiments involve reaching movements, and usually I screen out left-handed people. Now about 10% of the population is left handed, but if I’m looking for something that right-handed people do then of course it makes sense to screen out the left-handers.

  64. ForeverAutumn said,

    August 29, 2007 at 10:03 am

    @62 MT:”I really don’t know what you mean by “a new kind of political correctness””

    You brought up the feminist opinion of ev psych, although no-one else had mentioned it and Ben’s criticism was from a scientific rather than an ideological point of view.

    Yes, the problem is probably more in the media’s interpretation of ev psych rather than the field itself. Certain sections of the media *love* these “men are from mars” explanations. Any criticism, however reasonable, is seen as ideologically motivated and therefore suspect.

    E.g.
    Study finding: Women have a greater average number of shoes than men.
    Ev Psych explanation: Women have a tendancy to gather things, be they berries or shoes.
    Media response: Study Shows Why Women Love Shoes!!!!
    Critic: But this study was only done on a few hundred people living in New York. Also, individual differences were far stronger than group ones. The explanation does not necessarily follow from the study, at least not until you have replicated the findings in various cultures including ones isolated from Western influence.
    Media response: What are you, some kind of Birkenstock-wearing lesbian?

  65. MT said,

    August 29, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    FA – yes sorry, wires crossed. But I just wanted to make clear that though some branches of feminism seem to distrust science (I’m sure you have read Zoe Williams response to the paper), Darwinian feminism puts it at it’s centre. I had a too reactionary response to Ben’s article I do admit – I just saw all the work that had been done attempting to cajole academic feminists to at least view ev theory with an open mind, to begin to accept science as an ally not an enemy being put back to square one. Life began to look too short at that moment and I nearly gave up and got a job in Primark.

  66. ShatterFace said,

    August 29, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    ”But I just wanted to make clear that though some branches of feminism seem to distrust science (I’m sure you have read Zoe Williams response to the paper)”

    I suspect that some writers simply look at a scientific report and ask themselves ‘in what way can I find this offensive to myself or, better still, on behalf of others?’ rather than ‘does this report demonstrate what it claims to demonstrate?’

    Instead of a column assessing the claims of the report we ended up arguing about Zoe Williams’s interpretation of it.

    A week earlier Williams had attacked what she saw as sexism in another report.

    ”Research has suggested women prefer girly-looking fellas to the alpha-male variety. Surprise, surprise – another study that works in men’s favour.”

    commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/zoe_williams/2007/08/so_macho.html

    Frankly I found it hard to see how this report ‘works in men’s favour’ since if women are attracted to one type of men, another class of men are obviously missing out.

    I read an article once attacking binary code as ‘sexist’ as it privileges the phallic ‘1’ over the vulvic ‘0’.

    You can’t reason with some people no matter how feminist you attempt to be.

    By the way, my messages keep disappearing.

    Am I doing this wrong?

  67. ShatterFace said,

    August 29, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Ah, I see – they reappear when I log back on.

    Curious!

  68. MT said,

    August 29, 2007 at 4:33 pm

    It is utterly insane SF, and is maybe one of the reasons so many people are ashamed to call themselves feminists these days. Unfortunately however, the media is principle vehicle by which many people are introduced to these issues and debates, and most don’t seek to verify the facts for themselves but take the columnists opinions as being facts. That’s why I was so p’ed off at Goldacre’s, what seemed to me, weasel words re ev psych at the beginning of this piece.

    Columnists are very powerful people when it comes to the dissemination of ideas – I despair at the power people like Zoe Williams has.

    Richard Dawkins’ (I think it was in The Extended Phenotype) related a story of the harm misrepresentations, such as those that pour out of the Roses and are passed on via Williams and Bunting et al, can cause. A woman stood up at a conference he was speaking at; she was visibly upset at the consensus about gender difference because she believed that such differences actually sentenced her to a life of inferiority and servitude. Now this doesn’t come from the science, as I’m sure we all know here; such fear mongering comes from anti-ev theory columnists like Williams. They seem to have absolutely no idea of the harm their bloody mindedness and ignorance is capable of.

  69. PRL1973 said,

    August 29, 2007 at 9:42 pm

    Hello from a newbiegeek. I have come home!

    I do stats for money (cause I couldnt get a job as a journalist) and nearly wept on the train reading the original story in the paper – the two professions colliding like planets in a 1950s a-movie to create such a compact little vortex of mind evaporating cack. Did a single paper include a simple “but this of course is boll0cks” before just publish the email some bored students sent them?

    Why wasnt everyone else on the train screaming at the soul crushing inanity (is that a word? I coulda bin a jerno…) of it all?

    100% of the people in this room have just decided the moon is made of stilton.

    It’s all enough to make me want to tickle Richard Dawkins.

    Pete
    x

  70. Robert Carnegie said,

    August 30, 2007 at 1:54 am

    How prevalent does something have to be to avoid being excluded from normal? BBC radio show [Am I Normal?] has interestingly and often inconclusively considered several such issues. Sometimes a lack of conclusions is the best answer you’ve got.

    Incidentally, not all women are multi-orgasmic. I do what I can. :-) I think surveys still say from time to time that a proportion of women don’t have orgasms or aren’t sure, which of course does not mean no pleasure in the act at all but arguably missing out nevertheless, somewhat. It’s not as easy as it is in some of the popular media, and it still can be difficult to talk about.

  71. MT said,

    August 30, 2007 at 9:52 am

    Well..from an evolutionary perspective there is a hypothesis that the female orgasm has something to do with ‘female choice’ – this about orgasm during sex not masturbation as I’d think that many women know how to bring themselves to orgasm on their own.

  72. HowardW said,

    August 30, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    Just wanted to say: one of the best Bad Science article titles ever!

    (though does it need just one more “pink” in there? need to dig out the CD…)

    Howard

  73. RS said,

    August 30, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    “I think surveys still say from time to time that a proportion of women don’t have orgasms or aren’t sure”

    There was one of those terrible sensationalist TV documentaries a few years ago about women having spinal electrodes implanted to give them orgasms because they were anorgasmic.

    When they discussed with some of them whether they had tried masturbation or oral sex they responded ‘eugh – oh no, that’s disgusting’.

  74. RS said,

    August 30, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    “How about a slightly more basic question – is there any actual reason to suspect that there is a fundamental biological colour preference rule based on gender? Why would there be? What purpose would it serve?”

    Well given their explanation that it is something to do with berry collecting or flushed faces the obvious experiment that grown-ups would do is to see whether women have increased sensitivity or discriminative ability in the red spectrum. Because the EP explanation actually suggests that as a hypothesis, whereas the colour preference question has no conceptual connection with the explanation, which is pretty much ad hoc anyway.

  75. Littleshim said,

    August 30, 2007 at 4:38 pm

    @66 A.S.

    “True, but you could argue that since they did find a statistically significant difference, the samples were large enough and the cross-cultural interference cannot have been very strong.”

    Quite possible – having not been able to read the paper I can’t really say much.

    Littleshim: “But why should the Chinese preference be the ‘culture specific aspect’? How very ethnocentric…”

    “Fine by me. I followed the argument from the original paper that a preference for blue is the default and some posts that mentioned a special cultural significance of the color red in China. However, the direction you propose might well have a more plausible explanation.”

    Apologies for lack of clarity – I was assuming you followed the paper’s arguments, and my comments were directed at their reasoning rather than at you.

  76. MT said,

    August 30, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    …erm, I just realised looking at Ben’s first sentence to the piece…but wasn’t this a biology paper and not a psychology paper?

    I have it now actually. Am just off the read it myself. Not bragging or nowt.

  77. Dr T said,

    August 30, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    I’ve been watching this with interest, and there are a couple of things that occur to me. I have had a good look at the paper, (in “current Biology” which isn’t a mickey mouse journal) and it all seems fair enough. However, I happened to catch a Radio4 programme, ” the material world” this afternoon where the ethics of deceiving participants in psychology expts was discussed. The point was that if the participants *know* what they are being asked to do, then that adds bias to the results. Some relevance here shurely? The detailed methods say the participants were encouraged to choose quickly, but that might be hard to do. Would you not get a better measure of preference by designing an experiment that tested colour preference covertly? Other than that the paper is fine except for the leap of interpretation that selection for good colour discrimination in the red spectrum “WOULD emerge as a stable colour preference” I think I would change that to “might”. And thus have a working hypothesis that you could test in more detailed experiments – for example that preference is actually linked to colour discrimination…?

    I would also be curious to see a copy of the press release sent out by the journal. The journos don’t have time to scan the real thing much, so my guess is that the press releases are where this comes from. How common is it I wonder, that press release from the journal makes the flamboyant suggestions and is the main cause of the media nonsense, rather than the news journos themselves? So Ben… if you have it, do please post it up – I’d love to see it! And if there is anyone out there with a window on how papers are chosen for the PR treatment that would be very interesting.

    Sorry this is too long :-(

  78. MT said,

    August 30, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    Eye tracking maybe?

    The paper is only three pages long BTW – with references.

    And scratch my post above please – my supervisor has put me right.

  79. Dr T said,

    August 30, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Aha thanks Ben – what an interesting site!
    If anyone else wants a look (They appear in pop-ups without book marks), search Eurekalert www.eurekalert.org/index.php for “girls prefer pink”and it comes up top. It’s all pretty reasonable until the speculation at the end – but I guess that is what people latch on to. I suspect that most of the paper articles are cribbed from this.
    MT: I could believe eye-tracking just about, for New Scientist and Nature, though I know the latter press releases. Current Biology would be to obscure to look at regularly, I reckon.

  80. buffalo66 said,

    August 30, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    @ 78 Robert Carnegie : “How prevalent does something have to be to avoid being excluded from normal?”

    I suppose it depends on why you might want to exclude it. In the case of Hurlbert & Ling’s paper, the issue is not how prevalent colour blindness is, but whether it would be expected to affect the subjects’ colour preferences. People with color blindness have vastly different colour perception from normal trichromats, and this is likely to have a huge effect on their colour preferences. As Despard said (#70), colour blindness is confounded with gender so, if colour blind subjects were not removed from the sample, any differences between the colour preferences of men and women could be due to the larger number of colour blind subjects in the male group. Hurlbert & Ling were absolutely correct to remove colour blind subjects.

  81. buffalo66 said,

    August 30, 2007 at 10:01 pm

    I think the reaction to this paper has been a little harsh. The methodology and statistics appear sound. I agree that the evolutionary stuff is probably nonsense, but the authors make clear that this is speculation. My main criticism is that the title of the paper is quite misleading: “Biological components of sex differences in color preference”. The paper doesn’t provide any evidence whatsoever that the difference that they found is due to biological differences, as opposed to cultural influences. In fact, their data seem to suggest the opposite, given that the Chinese subjects, despite being sufficiently westernized to have moved to the UK, showed a substantially different pattern of results.

    The title is probably referring to the fact that the “principal components” that explain the most variance in the data correspond well to the “red-green” and “blue-yellow” mechanisms that have been identified physiologically. But I’m not sure how significant this is. I think you’d always expect these components to emerge from this sort of analysis, because they provide an efficient representation of the cone responses. That’s probably why these mechanisms evolved in the first place.

  82. Dr T said,

    August 30, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Good point, buffalo66. Principal components analysis is just a way of finding from a ‘noisy’ data set, (and in this case there is loads of noise from culture and other environmental effects) the strongest signal. I am prepared to accept from this paper that there is something in the idea, but a significant relationship between a principal component and another mechanism is NOT a causal relationship – that remains to be demonstrated.

  83. buffalo66 said,

    August 31, 2007 at 12:14 am

    I think the problem is that there’s enormous pressure on scientists to publish in high-impact journals, and these journals love stuff on evolutionary psychology, because it gets picked up by the media, and generates huge amounts of publicity. Rather than being “bad scientists”, Hurlbert & Ling have actually played the game spectacularly well. They’ve conducted a perfectly good study on colour preferences but, instead of sending it to a bog-standard journal, they’ve tacked on a completely spurious and speculative evolutionary “explanation”, and – bingo – it gets into Current Biology.

  84. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 31, 2007 at 12:33 am

    fyi

    Public release date: 20-Aug-2007
    [ Print Article | E-mail Article | Close Window ]

    Contact: Nancy Wampler
    nwampler@cell.com
    617-386-2121
    Cell Press
    Girls prefer pink, or at least a redder shade of blue

    A study in the August 21st issue of Current Biology, a publication of Cell Press, reports some of the first conclusive evidence in support of the long-held notion that men and women differ when it comes to their favorite colors. Indeed, the researchers found that women really do prefer pink—or at least a redder shade of blue—than men do.

    “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.”

    She said another way to separate “nature versus nurture” when it comes to favorite colors will be to test the preferences of infants. The researchers have plans to modify the color-choice test for use in young babies and hope to have some answers on that front soon.

    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.”

    ###

    The researchers include Anya C. Hurlbert and Yazhu Ling of Newcastle Univesity in Newcastle upon Tyne,UK.

    Hurlbert and Ling: “Biological components of sex differences in colour preference.” Publishing in Current Biology, 21 August 2007, R623-625. www.current-biology.com

  85. lauredhel said,

    August 31, 2007 at 7:46 am

    ” I have had a good look at the paper, (in “current Biology” which isn’t a mickey mouse journal) ”

    It wasn’t exactly in the Current Biology journal proper. It was in the “vibrant magazine section, that includes news, analysis and opinion, profiles of leading scientists and institutions, and informative, accessible guides to notable topics in biology.” No mention of whether the section is even peer-reviewed.

  86. Dr T said,

    August 31, 2007 at 9:53 am

    Fair point, lauredhel.
    That’s the curse of internet journals – you don’t get a feel for the ‘context’ in which it is presented, though the page numbers should have alerted me to that. I checked the guide to authors though,
    www.current-biology.com/misc/page?page=authors#Research
    and the magazine bit at the bottom says that they are peer reviewed.

    buffalo66
    “I think the problem is that there’s enormous pressure on scientists to publish in high-impact journals, ”

    ain’t that the truth!

  87. Robert Carnegie said,

    September 1, 2007 at 1:03 am

    If several of your friends are colour-blind, then won’t that influence your community consensus on colours?

  88. Garote said,

    September 2, 2007 at 11:48 am

    For those of you who wish to take the BSRI (Bem Sex Role Inventory) test for yourselves, but don’t wish to break out pen and paper to learn your score, I’ve whipped up a self-scoring version using JavaScript. Took me about half an hour.

    garote.bdmonkeys.net/bsri.html

  89. RS said,

    September 2, 2007 at 6:52 pm

    “In other words, the genetic influence becomes stronger and the environmental influence weaker as the person ages, at least with regard to IQ.”

    And yet, high IQ heritability enthusiasts interpret that as great evidence for the genetic basis IQ, rather than evidence of the lability of IQ.

  90. kim said,

    September 2, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    I’m entirely with Zoe Williams on this. A piece of research that does nothing but find out that women tend to share a preference for one colour of another, and men likewise, is a waste of time and public money. The hypothesis that colour preference is genetically coded is equally pointless: a, you can’t prove it, b, even if you could prove it, what purpose would it serve? Seriously?

  91. ShatterFace said,

    September 3, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    ”I’m entirely with Zoe Williams on this. A piece of research that does nothing but find out that women tend to share a preference for one colour of another, and men likewise, is a waste of time and public money. The hypothesis that colour preference is genetically coded is equally pointless: a, you can’t prove it, b, even if you could prove it, what purpose would it serve? Seriously?”

    There are serious issues involved if there are sexual differences in colour preferences.

    Imagine, for instance that me find blue more eyecatching and women find pink more eye catching.

    Imagine that a safety panel decides, based on it’s study of *male* employees, that safety warnings should be written in blue in order to be noticed.

    Wouldn’t pointing out that this might put female employees at risk be important enough?

    Or is simply pretending that men and women are exactly the same – whatever the consequences – more important to you?

    ”I suppose that if there is a genetically founded sex bias in our choices of colour of important objects, such as the Houses of Parliament, it would amount to discrimination… hmm, does any country have a pastel legislature?”

    I believe there’s a Whitehouse somewhere.

  92. RS said,

    September 4, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    “There are serious issues involved if there are sexual differences in colour preferences.

    Imagine, for instance that me find blue more eyecatching and women find pink more eye catching.”

    Gosh yes, imagine that someone had actually done a study that showed that – rather than an utterly pointless study of expressed colour preferences.

  93. Ben Goldacre said,

    September 4, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    i certainly don’t think the study was pointless, i just think the interpretation was a little wishful.

  94. RS said,

    September 4, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Well ok, not pointless, but not exactly setting out to answer a major scientific question – for all the pretty graphs it is only one step up from a survey.

  95. Amy H said,

    September 4, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    Thanks for posting the comments from 1914 and 1918 about pink being the appropriate color for a boy. This sheds light on a fascination I’ve had for a long time about the colors used in men’s professional cycling in Europe and how at odds they seem with what (in the US anyway) would be considered masculine colors.

    Yellow for the leader’s jersey in Tour de France. Red polka dots for King of the Mountains jersey. White for the young rider’s jersey. Pink leader’s jersey in the Giro D’Italia. And lots of men’s teams with bright but light colors such as pink, yellow, lime green, sky blue — T-Mobile calls its color magenta but c’mon it’s really bright pink! And this is in a sport which is unabashedly tough and masculine.

    At any rate I know the leader’s jerseys in the Tour and Giro are related to the companies that sponsor them (e.g., the pink pages of the Italian newspaper that sponsors the Giro) so maybe it’s just a matter of capitalism at work. On the other hand, the Tour, for one, is over a hundred years old so maybe it’s only a reflection of earlier masculine tastes in color. Then again, dark colors absorb more heat — so maybe it’s just a matter of practicality. At any rate, whatever the explanation, I know you would never see a pink jersey as the ultimate prize in the average US men’s sports competition!

  96. coracle said,

    September 4, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    Uh oh, hope the site survives, badscience just got slashdot‘d

  97. buffalo66 said,

    September 15, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    @ 100 Kim: “I’m entirely with Zoe Williams on this. A piece of research that does nothing but find out that women tend to share a preference for one colour of another, and men likewise, is a waste of time and public money.”

    Aesthetic preferences play an important part in most peoples’ lives. They influence our choice of music, films, books, art, clothes, hairstyle, car, interior decoration, and sexual partner, among many other things. Therefore, to understand aesthetic preferences is to understand an important part of the human psyche. Surely this is not a waste of time and money? Hurlbert & Ling’s study is just a tiny piece in an enormous jigsaw puzzle. It provides some good quality data on what peoples’ colour preferences are.

    You ask what purpose this research could serve. One possible application would be to help manufacturers decide what colours to make their products. But the primary goal of science is to find stuff out, not to be useful. Finding stuff out does tend to have practical benefits but, in many fields of science, if you take an individual paper, it is often difficult to think of a convincing practical application of the findings it describes. Most individual findings are pretty insignificant on their own but, taken together, they can lead to a useful increase in our understanding of something.

    But, even if something has virtually no practical benefit, it can still be worth funding. That’s why we have government funding of the arts. In the case of science, if the findings are interesting, then the research was worth doing. And given the amount of media coverage of Hurlbert & Ling’s research, it’s clear that many people were interested in it. In fact, research with no immediate practical benefit is just the sort of thing that should be funded by public money – research with obvious practical benefits is likely to find an industrial sponsor.

  98. buffalo66 said,

    September 16, 2007 at 4:25 pm

    @ RS (#105): “Well ok, not pointless, but not exactly setting out to answer a major scientific question – for all the pretty graphs it is only one step up from a survey.”

    Why does every study have to answer a major scientific question? Surely there’s room for the less important questions as well? As I argued in my previous post, the general topic of aesthetic preferences is far from trivial. Answering major scientific questions takes a lot of time and effort, and usually involves many false starts, so it’s a good idea to have some easy side-projects on the go, to keep your publication rate up. Anya Hurlbert’s main research area is the more serious issue of colour constancy, i.e. the tendency for things to look the same colour after a change in the illuminant (e.g. from daylight to light bulbs).

    As for the study being “one step up from a survey”, it’s true that the subjects were shown things and asked questions about them, but that’s the most straightforward way to study the perceptual experience. It is a very well-established paradigm to show subjects two stimuli, and get them to say which one looked brighter, longer, faster, further away, etc. Asking subjects which of two colours they prefer is formally equivalent to any of these. I can see no problems with either the subject matter or the methodology of this study.

    The authors have been rightly criticised for their rather implausible evolutionary interpretation of the results, but in their paper the evolutionary stuff is clearly described as speculation rather than a firm conclusion.

  99. mickjames said,

    September 27, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    Is it me or is the extreme “pinkisation” of female childhoood (and, more distubingly, adulthood) not a very recent phenomenom? It’s difficult to recall, as I grew up in an all-boy household in the ’60s (so our dominant colour was camouflage green) but I thought all that “painting the nursery pink” thing only happened in Doris Day movies.
    Nowadays everything seems to have a “female,pink” version: pink bikes, pink DVD players, even pink computers. Friends with female children claim they choose pink spontaneously, but I can’t see what other choice they are offered.

  100. Neil... said,

    March 7, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Well the marketing departments of all these companies who make a pink digital camera think that girls like pink, and continue to do so into adulthood (at least until they are old enough to buy digital cameras and laptops, mobile phones even cars…

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