Color biases may be nature, not nurture

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Times Staff Writer

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.

“There does seem to be a universal color preference, which seems to be hard-wired into our brains,” said neuroscientist Dr. Anya Hurlbert, the study’s lead author. “We were very surprised by how robust the results were.”

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.


If culture dictated color preference, then the researchers guessed that the Chinese would favor red -- a symbol of good luck in that culture.

As it turned out, both Britons and Chinese had a strong attachment to blue, although the Chinese tended to favor slightly more reddish hues.

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.

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.