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.


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.


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.

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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

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:

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:


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