So why do so many little girls love pink?

Daantaat in a comment here   tells us that in Asia pink is not gendered; men wear it and that is not considered remarkable.  But it seems many little girls in the West at least are keen for pink from the get-go, and it’s considered a girly color.  So how does that happen?  Doesn’t the fact that the preference starts so early just show that it must be innate?

Well, in fact, no.  Instead, it looks as though we probably have a culturally induced gender characteristic that  appears at a remarkably early age.  And we can now understand how that trick is worked.

It is extremely important that we are able to predict outcomes, and our brain is equipped with a special system for learning very rapidly where the rewards are.  In fact, even given the much less complex – and very much smaller – brain of the bee, you can turn a bee onto pink in just one trial.  And that’s by associating pink in the bee with something the bee wants, such as sugar.

Here’s a lecture by Terry Sejnowski which explains the mechanism.  In humans it’s the dopamine stuff that philosophers are starting to learn about these days.  The talk was given for high school students, and it is very clear without being boring, I think.  It is really long, but you get to the bees fairly early on, @ 16:55.

I just encountered a way to get more of the picture.  Stephen E. Palmer, who along with David Marr forms the philosophers’ paradigm of a vision scientist, has been looking at color preferences among human beings.  It turns out that his recent research strongly suggests that we like colors that are generally associated with things in some way rewarding to us, such as blue skies and healthy foliage. 

There’s a conclusion that follows, though we are not dealing with the exact sciences here.  But it looks as though if one has a generation of girls becoming devotees of one particular color, their environment is strongly associating that color and rewards.  One doesn’t have to be very quick to figure out what it is.  Babies love attention, smiles and so on.

Nothing in this explanation is inconsistent with saying that there’s some primitive and genetic-based association between pink and rewards in women, but there seems to be evidence against that hypothesis.  Thus it is not present in Asian women.  And given the movie clip in Think Pink, Part One, it looks as though the love of pink is fairly recent in Western culture.

7 thoughts on “So why do so many little girls love pink?

  1. In many catholic countries, for the longest time the ‘right’ color for little girls was blue, light blue, as it is the color of the Virgin Mary. The pink thing is totally a recent invention.

  2. My Malaysian father loved to wear pink, and large conspicuous jewelry (including bracelets, necklasses, rings…). Also in Malaysia these things are not considered to be exclusively for girls. But peer pressure has gradually dissuaded him.

  3. Does anybody else remember the time when pink and grey were the “in” color combo for men (at least in the US)?

  4. There was research done on the possible genetic inheritance of colour preference in the UK. “Researchers at Newcastle University pinpointed the pink-blue division by presenting more than 200 men and women with a series of coloured triangles and asking them to pick out their favorite hues. […] Faced with more than 250 different colour choices, the women clearly veered towards pinks and lilacs, while the men went mainly for blues.”

    “in a ‘Bad Science’ report by Ben Goldacre in the Guardian, who pointed out that even if a preference for pinker colours was seem among women, the researchers had not screened out the likely explanation that this a cultural rather than biological difference. We surround girls with pink, we buy them pink clothes, we give them pink bedrooms, can we be surprised if they are readier to say they like pink?”

    I discuss the colour polarization further on my blog

  5. I’ll side with the authors of the study. Girls loving pink is definitely NOT biological. Boys liking blue and green may be biological. Culture is a HUGE factor in colour preference. I liked the school colour aversion/affection test for Berkeley students compared to Stanford students as proof. That was cute.

    I lived in a student sublet over the summer in a house full of Asian kids. “I wear pink in Beijing. Does it really mean a boy is gay if he wears that colour here?” was a big discussion topic.

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