Men and Women See Things Differently (No, Literally)

Color perception may actually have something to do with gender

man woman flowers
Fiona Conrad/Corbis

It’s a joke that if you ask men and women to name colors you’d get basic responses from men (red, yellow, green, blue, dark blue) and some creative ones from women (carnation, lemon, light sage, sky blue, cerulean).

Yet, research has actually borne this joke out to some extent. Women do tend to have a larger, more elaborate color vocabulary.

Israel Abramov, of CUNY’s Brooklyn College, has worked to find out if men and women’s brains are somehow wired differently when it comes to color perception, writes Sadie Steffens for "Lions Talk Science," a blog by Penn State Milton S. Hershey College of Medicine. His work does show differences. Steffens writes:

Abramov asked men and women to break down the hue of a color and to assign a percentage to the categories red, yellow, green, and blue. The results showed that women were more adept at distinguishing between subtle gradations than were men. This sensitivity was most evident in the middle of the color spectrum. With hues that were mainly yellow or green, women were able to distinguish tiny differences between colors that looked identical to men. In fact, Abramov found that slightly longer wavelengths of light were required for men to see the same hues as women – hues identified as orange by women were seen as more yellow by men.

However, when shown light and dark bars flickering on a screen, men were better than women at seeing the bars. Men were better able to perceive changes in brightness across space, a skill useful for reading a letter on an eye chart or recognizing a face. This effect was increased as the bars narrowed, suggesting that men are more sensitive to fine details and rapid movement than women.

Abramov thinks that testosterone might be to blame for this difference. Men have more testosterone receptors than women, particularly in the visual regions of the brain, that might be causing the perceptual differences. Still the exact biological mechanism has yet to be discovered. And men and women aren't the only categories of people who see color differently from each other. So do older people, compared to younger people. And people who work with color—think of artists and designers—have a significantly more enhanced color vocabulary. So the difference between men and women might not be biological, but cultural. 

Meanwhile, we will continue to plumb the depths of gender’s effect on color. For example, when Randall Munroe, the creator of the XKCD webcomic, surveyed his readers, he found that A) everyone goes crazy when asked to name colors and B) no one can spell fuchsia. Actually, his full results were even more interesting, so check them out.

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