Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Let's Color Ourselves In Pink And Blue

Nothing drives me up the wall faster than biological determinism. Whenever researchers try to use genetic explanations to push theories of why “men do this, women do that.” Just because this is about color doesn’t mean it’s still not stretching its science to make a point. I'm referring to this widely circulated study which manages to take a small finding and then give everyone a reason to believe that somehow boys *just know* that pastels are yucky. It’s in their DNA don’tcha know.

Color biases may be nature, not nurture

Women's brains seem to be hard-wired to prefer lavender, and men's tend toward blue.That's what a group of British neuroscientists found in an experiment to determine whether people's attraction to certain colors was cultural or biological.
It’s not the topic of the research that gets me. There’s nothing wrong with studying people’s attractions to different colors and trying to see how much difference or similarities there are between cultures and yes, gender.

It’s the jump to the conclusions that are the problem.
Hurlbert and her research associate Yazhu Ling, both of Newcastle University in Britain, showed 171 white Britons and 37 recent Chinese immigrants a pair of colored rectangles on a computer screen and asked them to click on their preferred color as quickly as possible. The subjects were shown about 1,000 pairs of colors.
Notice who they are studying…not babies. Not children. Adults. They are studying people who have already adapted a cultural understanding that certain colors are symbolic and have cultural overtones. Which is fine...it’s what they are studying.
The most interesting finding was the difference between men and women. Women consistently favored more reddish tints, regardless of their cultural background. The most popular single color among women was a heliotrope shade of pink-purple, the researchers found. Men had a penchant for blue-green hues, picking sky blue most often, according to the study released Monday in the journal Current Biology.
Again…so far so good. These are observable results. It’s when they get to the explanation of their results these researchers cross a line between what their results actually show and what they think its explaination can be.

Hurlbert surmised that women may have evolved an interest in red because of their primary role as gatherers in early human history. "This fits with the notion that the red-green dimension of color vision evolved to enable better discrimination of red fruit against green leaves," she said.

Another possibility was that women's interest in purple and pink may help them distinguish subtle changes in emotion in people's faces, Hurlbert said.

Pure bullshit. They are testing adults and immediately jump to “hunter-gather” explanation. (Or the "woman are better are reading emotions" theory.) How about the fact that certain colors in BOTH cultures are thought of as feminine while others are seen as masculine. You don’t see men walking around in lavender shirts in China or in Britain unless they’re pretty confident of their sexual identity.

There’s nothing worse than seeing science being used to back up and support gender stereotyping that very easily might be cultural shaping. Whether its women talk more or men like blondes. People seem to run back to the chimps before looking around at modern humans and wondering “Gee I wonder why adult men don’t seem to like the color lavender?”

UPDATE: I figured I wasn't the only one who spotted the gap in logic. Second Innocence did. But some people seem to like to swallow the pink Kool-Aid.


Anonymous said...

nicely said


Anonymous said...

Agreed. The research is valid, but the leaps in logic are utter bull cookies. This is an example of why you do research in your own field, and not mix and match. Another example is historians writing books to support their political views. You do your best to get to the truth, then report it as factually as possible. Then you let OTHERS decide the reasons for the conclusions. The biologists should do their jobs, the anthropologists should do theirs, etc. That whole hunter-gatherer stuff is not biology, but anthopology.

All that said, I think biology IS a huge factor, if not the biggest, in these determinations. Look at the case of David Reimer.

Jim in Cleveland