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Differences in color perception by sex, also the Bechdel test for women in movies

Here’s a pretty funny example of silly statistics, caught by Lisa Wade:

A study published in 2001 . . . 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:


The authors of the study, Lee Ellis and Christopher Ficek, wrote:

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.

As Wade points out, that all seems a bit ridiculous given some much more direct stories based on the big-time association of pink and blue with girls and boys.

No big deal, it’s just sort of funny to see this sort of pseudoscientific explanation in such pure form.

And what kind of person lists green as their favorite color? 20% and 29%? I can’t believe it! Sure, green is the color of money, but still . . .

P.S. That blog entry has 68 comments! I don’t think there’s really so much to say about this study. I guess it’s like 538: the commenters just start arguing with each other.

P.P.S. This one is pretty funny too. (See here for more detail.)


  1. Looking at Lisa Wade's account of this phenomenon (such as it is), she interprets the same data as reflecting socio-cultural exposure and values.

    And these authors, of course, interpret it (rather speculatively, given their language) as due to physiological differences.

    Yet why is the interpretation of the authors here inherently more laughable than that of Lisa Wade? How about the possibility that we have no damned idea which of the two explanations, physiological or environmental, dominates (or perhaps both are equally at play)?

    It is hardly decisive for the environmental explanation that boys are exposed primarily to blue and girls to other colors such as pink. That might be, for all we know, due to preferences boys show vs those of girls. (Is there a culture in which the color preferences are the opposite? Lisa Wade does not say.)

    Now I certainly oppose the idea, too common in evolutionary psychology, that almost every last wrinkle of our culture might be explained by biology. We have no reason to think biology that specific in its mechanisms, or culture too weak in its power to impose essentially arbitrary values.

    But in cases like this, the reasonable view seems to be a real agnosticism, at least until more compelling evidence might be brought to bear.

    The idea that either side, the biological or the environmental, simply must be the default position is not a scientific view; it is an ideological one.

  2. Manolo says:

    Green is indeed my favourite colour… and I suspect my father's is yellow… there are however also cultural differences to the relationship between colour and emotions.

  3. Anne says:

    I'd say the Bechdel test is an instructive thought exercise; it's certainly silly to gather statistics about it, but I don't think the test itself is silly. A more extended exercise, if you regularly rent movies to watch, is to try to choose one out of every two that passes the Bechdel test. You quickly realize how hard it is, but also what a variety of movies pass the test: it's not *hard* to make a movie that passes, and it doesn't force the movie to be a "chick flick" (e.g. Alien and Aliens both pass). But it does usually pull women out of the "damsel in distress" and "reward for the victor" roles they so often get relegated to.

    Speaking more generally, feminism troubled me for a long time because so much of it consists of interpretations that are difficult to pose as questions that could even potentially be tested. But things like this that gather together a really large number of examples can start to be convincing, and things like this can provide plausible stories for measurable numbers like the 1.5% of FLOSS developers that are women.

    Of course, any discussion of feminism, as I'm afraid you may be about to discover, is liable to unleash a torrent of men explaining how everything is fine now and feminism is really what's making women's lives difficult, and anyway feminists are all ugly and/or lesbians. So it tends to fill up comment sections regardless of the actual content of the post.

  4. Andrew Gelman says:

    Liberal: I agree that the Ellis and Ficek explanation is possible. Still, their story seems pseudoscientific to me, in the sense that the science in their story is more a form of decoration than anything else.

    Anne: I thought the Bechdel test was much more interesting than this study, and I don't think it would be such a silly idea for someone to gather statistics about it!

  5. agnostic says:

    It has nothing to do with socio-cultural things like pink for girls and blue for boys, given that the distribution is surprisingly similar across the world's cultures. Two artists, Komar and Melamid, helped out by statisticians, took to finding out what the average person finds aesthetically pleasing around the world:

    Under "Survey Results," you can see the distribution of "favorite color" for a variety of countries. Blue just about always comes first, then green, with orange and yellow left out in the cold.

    Blue and green dominate in "calendar art" made for the average person (not the random vomit made for high-ranking fools), and that's true around the world. If I recall correctly from the book-length write-up of K&M's results, higher-status people are more likely than the average to like red and less likely to like blue and green.

    The biological / evolutionary story is that they reflect our largely hunter-gatherer and pastoralist pasts. Verdant pasture and clear skies signal good times ahead, putting our minds at ease.

  6. Anne says:

    Andrew Gelman: That's a pretty low bar to set, really. The problem with studying the Bechdel test numerically is that on the one hand it's often arguable (if two female cops are arguing about how to stop the terrorist but the terrorist is male, are they talking about a man?) and on the other it can mean wildly different things. Alien/Aliens pass because they have a female main character who talks to some of the female supporting characters about the aliens. Imagine Me and You passes because it's a lesbian romance, so of course the women talking to each other are not necessarily talking about men – but they're still in the "who should I go out with?" ghetto of romantic comedies. On the other end of the scale, Master and Commander fails because it's set in the British Navy and so women play no direct role, while Avatar fails because… well, I don't know, and it's an interesting question why it fails. Or Salt, for that matter, in spite of having a female main character.

    This sort of wildly disparate reasons for passing or failing are why I think of it as more an interesting thought exercise than a useful measure of women's representation in a movie. I think an experienced sociologist (or maybe this is more the domain for anthropologists? I was a subject for an anthropologist's thesis once, studying the strange culture of grad students in the physical sciences) could come up with a nice measure to quantify women's role and interactions in a movie (counting interactions? I don't know).

  7. Andrew Gelman says:


    Yes, I love the Komar and Melamid book! It's hilarious, a true work of art in its own way. I think it's uncontroversial that preferences in art relate to colors and scenes in nature–even abstract art can be interpreted by our brains as looking like faces, clouds, etc. And I think it's also uncontroversial that attitudes about art are highly influenced by cultural context as well. Connecting human color preferences on a survey form to sex differences among rats' preferences on drinking water, though . . . that seems to be on the speculative side.

  8. Andrew Gelman says:


    I could see that studying the Bechdel test might take a bit of work. But maybe it would be worth it. Consider a typical Ph.D. student or faculty member who spends 20 hours per week doing research. For 50 weeks, that's 1000 hours per year: enough time to do the study right if you know what you're doing. (I certainly couldn't do it; for one thing, I haven't seen any of the movies that you mention.) I agree with you that, in such a study, the specific "Bechdel rules" could be more of a starting point for a bunch of different measurements.

  9. Alex Cook says:

    "And what kind of person lists green as their favorite color?"

    Celtic supporters. Not sure they make up 20 to 30% of the population, though I am very sure few of them would choose blue as their favourite colour.

  10. Megan Pledger says:

    "And what kind of person lists green as their favorite color?"

    Isn't that Barak O'Bama's favourite colour? I'm sure his birth certificate says he was born in Ireland. Or was that a forgery?

  11. Lord says:

    Farmers like green as do woodsmen I imagine. Perhaps desert inhabitants would like yellow or red.

  12. Andrew Gelman says:

    Good point. My thoughtless dismissal of green represents my implicit urban orientation.

  13. Phil says:

    This is going to sound ridiculous, but I'm not exactly clear on the concept of "favorite color." The jacket I wore today is green, my fleece jacket is green, and my rain jacket is green, so if someone asked "what's your favorite jacket color" I guess I would say green. But I don't own any green pants, none of the walls in my house are painted green, and I own no green furniture, nor green rugs. I do have a couple of green shirts, but that's not the color I wear a majority of the time, nor even a plurality (that would be blue).

    If you were to ask "when given a choice to introduce a colorful item into your life, what color do you favor," that would be a really tough one. Empirically, blue, green, khaki, black (if we call that a color) and gold would all be in the running, and I can't tell for sure which one is the best answer.

    If I recall correctly, I think the most popular car colors are white, black, and silver, but I think few people would list those as their favorite colors.

  14. Zubon says:

    Phil, I am very much there with you. Someone recently asked my favorite color; in response, I asked, "For what?"

  15. Behzad says:

    If you still wonder "what kind of person lists green as their favorite color?" take a look at these

    In Iran in the past 1.5 years green has been the color which unites people against the suppressive government, and is definitely the favorite color by many Iranians.

  16. Jerzy says:

    Anne and Andrew's discussion of collecting more Bechdel test stats got me (over)thinking:

    I'd heard about the Bechdel test before, and couldn't think of many movies that passed, so the thought experiment was quite convincing. I mean, I already agreed that this type of subliminal sexism/imbalance exists in popular culture; but the Bechdel test seems to be solid empirical supporting evidence.
    However, now I'm (pleasantly) surprised to see that there are so many movies on that stats page that actually do pass the test.

    So, thinking like a statistician, I had to ask myself: what exactly makes me feel surprised? "So many" compared to what? Are there "so many" that the Bechdel test is not good evidence of latent sexism after all?

    Somewhere online I've seen a sort of "reverse Bechdel test" suggested: does the movie have at least 2 men who talk to each other about something besides a woman? Ignoring edge cases like silent films, it seems even harder to think of a movie that *fails* the reverse Bechdel than to think of one that *passes* the usual Bechdel test. Even films centered around female characters often have a couple of guys discussing football or something.

    It's not enough to say that many movies fail the Bechdel, since quite a few also pass it. But if we had good evidence that nearly all movies pass the reverse Bechdel, and almost none fail it, that would be a relevant comparison to make.

    In other words: under a null hypothesis of little or no latent sexism of this kind, the pass/fail rates would be comparable for Bechdel and ReverseBechdel (with high pass rates in each case). Under the alternative hypothesis of existing sexism/imbalance, we'd see one pass rate much higher than the other. (If both are low… then our movie database contains only nature docs and really bad romantic comedies?)

    (Of course, besides the problems Anne pointed out, another issue is to figure out whether the set of movies reviewed on this Bechdel website are representative of all general pop-culture movies, or whether "passing" movies are over-represented because people want to share them there. And how do you know if the difference in pass rates is significant? Would you consider existing films to be a sample from the superpopulation of all movies that *might* have been made but weren't? Also, how do rates change if each movie is weighted by number of viewers, or profit on the movie, etc?)

    Anyway, collecting some reverse-Bechdel stats could be pretty interesting indeed. Let me know if you find a researcher who'll fund me to do this! :-P

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