— The long-held notion that girls prefer pink while boys prefer blue may hold some truth, suggests a new study. And moreover, there might be a biological basis for why women prefer pink or at least more reddish colours than men, say researchers.
The authors of the new study say their findings support the theory that colour vision evolved in humans in part to help females spot ripe fruit such as red berries.
Both sexes find blues more appealing than other shades of the rainbow according to previous research, says Anya Hurlbert at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, who led the study. However, scientists have lacked good evidence as to whether women and men really differ in terms of the shades they like best.
Hurlbert and her colleagues tested colour preferences in 171 British adults and 37 recent immigrants to the UK from mainland China, with almost equal numbers of men and women.
The idea of testing the two groups was to separate out whether culture or biology might influence gender preferences for colour. Each participant viewed about 750 different pairs of colours spanning the entire rainbow, and in each case had to indicate which of the two shades they preferred.
As expected from previous work, both sexes rated blues as best. But analysis of all the colour comparisons revealed that the women had a significantly higher preference for blues with "pinkish" undertones such as lilac whereas men tend to lean towards purer blues.
Hurlbert thinks that women might prefer pinker shades because in cultures where pink represents girlishness and femininity they have learned to identify with it.
But she adds that the Chinese women in her study, who grew up without commercial toys such as Barbie that promote pink to girls, showed an even greater liking for pinkish hues than their British female counterparts. So Hurlbert believes that women's attraction towards pinkish colours is innate.
She acknowledges, however, that there might be other cultural influences on colour preference beyond toys that explain why Chinese women prefer pinkish hues, too.
The study might provide insight into why humans evolved colour vision in the first place, say the researchers. Although many mammals are thought to lack sophisticated colour perception, humans and several other primates, such as gorillas, possess advanced colour vision thanks to specialised receptors in the eye that can pick up on three different ranges of light waves.
Some biologists have proposed that our primate ancestors developed this advanced form of colour vision because it made it easier to pick out reddish, ripe fruit against a background of green vegetation.
Hurlbert believes her finding that women show a greater liking for redder hues supports this theory because females are thought to have done most of the fruit gathering.
She admits, though, that just because women prefer pinkish colours does not mean they spot them faster than men do.
Hurlbert speculates there may also be evolutionary arguments for both sexes' preference for blue. "Going back to our 'savannah' days, we would have a natural preference for a clear blue sky, because it signalled good weather. Clear blue also signals a good water source."
Journal reference: Current Biology (vol 17, No 16 R623)