What Explains Differences in Color Preference By Sex?

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By Lisa Wade, PhD

A study published in 2001, to which I was alerted by Family Inequality, asked undergraduate college students their favorite color and presented the results by sex. Men’s favorites are on the left, women’s on the right:

Family Inequality

The article is a great example of the difference between research findings and the interpretation of those findings. For example, this is how I would interpret it:

Today in the U.S., but not elsewhere and not always, blue is gendered male and pink gendered female. We might expect, then, that men would internalize a preference for blue and women a preference for pink. We live, however, in an androcentric society that values masculinity over femininity. This rewards the embracing of masculinity by both men and women (making it essentially compulsory for men) and stigmatizes the embracing of femininity (especially for men).

We might expect, then, that men would comfortably embrace a love of blue (blue = masculinity = good), while many women will have a troubled relationship to pink (pink = femininity = devalued, but encouraged for women) and gravitate to blue and all of the good, masculine meaning it offers.

That’s how I’d interpret it.

Here’s how the authors of the study interpreted it:

…we are inclined to suspect the involvement of neurohormonal factors. Studies of rats have found average sex differences in the number of neurons comprising various parts of the visual cortex. Also, gender differences have been found in rat preferences for the amount of sweetness in drinking water. One experiment demonstrated that the sex differences in rat preferences for sweetness was eliminated by depriving males of male-typical testosterone levels in utero. Perhaps, prenatal exposure to testosterone and other sex hormones operates in a similar way to “bias” preferences for certain colors in humans.

Go figure.

Important lesson here: data never stands alone. It must always be interpreted.

This article originally appeared on Sociological Images in 2010.