Home About Feed Archives Contact

Psst! Scientists prove girls prefer pink! Pass it on!

September 13, 2007 | Ethics,Journalism,MSM,PR,Research,Statistics

Well, not really. But I made you look, didn’t I?

Maybe you missed the headlines a couple of weeks ago about research that claims to show that girls like pink, but they caught my eye. It must have been all the pretty pink headlines and flowery language [girly sigh]. Maybe I’m making a magenta mountain out of a muted-pink molehill, but let’s just say this were a study on, say, the war in Iraq. I believe this little molehill indicates a much larger problem in journalism that goes like this:

  • Take a press release.
  • Rearrange a few words to “earn” a byline (with zero reporting and zero fact-checking) and, if you feel like it, add a witty sentence or two.
  • Slap a headline on it.
  • Call it news.

Let’s start with the study. 

Researchers from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom published the results of a color-preference study on 208 college-age (20-26) volunteers in the Aug. 21, 2007, issue of Current Biology. The article was announced in a press release issued by Cell Press, which publishes Current Biology and several other scientific journals. Current Biology is a peer-reviewed journal, which means that materials submitted for publication are reviewed or “refereed” by a panel of experts in the same field to determine if they meet the standards of their scientific discipline.

Current Biology has 1,709 subscribers, and it’s distributed at about 30 conferences a year. At $179 a year, I doubt your average news consumer would subscribe just to read this article. I doubt they would even pay the $30 I did to download and read the 1,297-word article (a couple of pages) and its supplemental data. Apparently none of the media outlets that published the press release would either, although they really should have.

Or maybe it should be freely available, as Bad Science blogger, Dr. Ben Goldacre (who has a few things to say about the article), points out:

Unless you have an Athens login, you are not allowed to read what the researchers actually said, instead of what the media said they said. Because although they are publicly funded academics at the University of Newcastle, and although this work has been publicised in every major mainstream media outlet in Britain and the US, and although the journal is edited by academics you fund, and paid for by subscriptions from university libraries … the actual academic article is behind a paywall, with a payment model geared towards institutions, rather than interested individuals.

Bad luck you. I guess you have to rely on journalists.

According to the supplemental data, researchers tested three groups:

  • 1) 90 subjects (28 British females, 25 British males, 18 Chinese females and 19 Chinese males) tested on 24 colors in three hue groups
  • 2) 35 subjects (21 British females and 14 British males) tested on 44 colors in six hue groups
  • 3) 83 subjects (43 British females and 40 British males) tested on 16 colors in three hue groups

Why the tests weren’t exactly the same in each setting, researchers didn’t say, and nobody asked. When were the tests done? 2007? 2006? 2005? Researchers didn’t say, and nobody asked.

The first group also completed the Bem Sex Role Inventory, which scores feminity and masculinity based on subjects rating themselves from 1 to 7 on a list of adjectives and phrases, such as self-reliantyieldingdominant and soft-spoken. Why? Researchers didn’t say, although they found a “significant” correlation between feminity scores (of 46 females) and the preference test. Why this group and not the others? Researchers didn’t say. Nobody asked.

Cell’s press release said, quoting researcher Anya Hurlbert:

The universal favorite color for all people appears to be blue.

“On top of that, females have a preference for the red end of the red-green axis, and this shifts their color preference slightly away from blue towards red, which tends to make pinks and lilacs the most preferred colors in comparison with others.”

Actually, Hurlbert wrote in the Current Biology article:

On average, all subjects give positive weight to the S-(L+M) contrast component (“bluish” contrasts), with British females weighting it significantly higher than British males. (Emphasis added.)

That means 92 women preferred blue even more than 79 men. Do we need a new headline?

Girls like blue even more than boys do!

The article also said, “On average, all males give large negative weight to the L-M [red-green] axis, whereas all females weight it slightly positively.” (Emphasis added.) New headline?

Boys hate red; girls think it’s OK

To rule out cultural influences on color preference, researchers also tested 18 Chinese women and 19 Chinese men. Researchers thought they would get a higher preference for red from the Chinese participants because, they said, red signifies “good luck” in Chinese culture. (I don’t know. Isn’t that like saying the Irish like green?) Results were similar, thus proving to researchers that color preference had nothing to do with culture and everything to do with biology.

Which brings us to this gem:

We speculate that this [girls’ preference for pink] sex difference arose from sex-specific functional specializations in the evolutionary division of labour. The hunter-gatherer theory proposes that female brains should be specialized for gathering-related tasks and is supported by studies of visual spatial abilities.

“Gatherer” females apparently had to identify red fruit among all the green leaves and be highly aware of changes in skin color because of their role as “empathizers.” Sooooo … it’s a scientific fact that a small group of 20-something 21st century women “prefer” reddish hues over men who dislike it because of evolution. Remember, cultural influences were removed as a factor because the Chinese participants didn’t like red any more than the others, even though, according to researchers, they should have.


Here‘s what one blogger had to say about the scientific aspects of the article. Here’s what the Bad Science blogger/doctor said about it. (Red Jenny tipped me off to Bad Science.)

What’s the point of the research, and how will results be used? Researchers didn’t say, except that they plan to study color preference in infants, and perhaps they need funding for that. Except that research apparently has already been done, according to a May 8, 2005, article by BBC News. Even so, nobody asked.

Who’s funding this research and why? Researchers didn’t say, and nobody asked.

However, Unilever was acknowledged for supporting co-researcher Yazhu Ling with a studentship in a 2002 article in Perception and a 2004 article in the Journal of Vision. Unilever was also listed under “support” for a presentation on color perceptionby Hurlbert and Ling at the 29 European Conference on Visual Perception in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Aug. 21, 2006.

While studentships are usually rare because of limited funding, Unilever’s studentship funding seems to be plentiful, offered at Cambridge University, the University of Manchester, the University of Nottingham, the Imperial College London, the University College London, and University of Newcastle upon Tyne, to name a few. Unilever even established its own “world-leading research group” by investing £13M (about $26 million) in the Unilever Centre for Molecular for Science Informatics at Cambridge University, opening a new building in 2000.

Unilever provides financial support for research through its Port Sunlight office in Liverpool, which boasts more than “700 scientists and engineers from various backgrounds and nationalities working to create innovative products for consumers around the world. The global brands our teams contribute to include Dove, Sunsilk, Lynx/Axe, Cif, Persil/Omo and Domestos.” This work, the Web site continues, results in more than 100 patent filings and about 140 peer-reviewed papers and conference presentations. Oh, and by the way, Unilever also created The Gamekillers,” a television series set to debut on MTV on Sept. 21, to sell Axe antiperspirant, according to an article in the Sept. 13, 2007, Wall Street Journal.

How to sell products to consumers?

“Psychologists, social scientists, and experts in cognitive neuroscience form another important team — Consumer Science Insight — whose role is to investigate how a consumer’s ‘need’ or ‘desire’ translates into a product.”

Let’s check out the headlines. This one’s from Cell’s press release:

Girls prefer pink, or at least a redder shade of blue

Psst! Wouldn’t a “redder shade of blue” be purple?

Other headlines

Study: Why Girls Like Pink (Time.com, Aug. 20, 2007)

Why women love a red, red rose (USATODAY, Aug. 20, 2007)

Girls Really Do Prefer Pink (HealthDay/Yahoo! News, Aug. 20, 2007)

The HealthDay article was picked up by U.S. News & World Report, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and several others. It was even picked up by healthfinder.gov, “Your Guide to Reliable Health Information, sponsored by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.”

Color biases may be nature, not nurture (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21, 2007)

At last, science discovers why blue is for boys but girls really do prefer pink (The Times, Aug. 21, 2007)

Why girls ‘really do prefer pink’ (BBC, Aug. 21, 2007)

Girls Prefer Pink, Or At Least A Redder Shade of Blue (Science Daily, Aug. 22, 2007)

I saved the best for last. No, there’s nothing special about the headline. It’s about the same as all the others. The article is the same.

Girls really do prefer pink, study shows (Telegraph, Aug. 21, 2007)

Oh, but this … this takes the cake. The Telegraph’s science editor, Dr. Roger Highfield, made a video version of the article, complete with color-screen changes with a snap of his fingers and a tone of authority and finality. As in, this is the truth, this is scientific fact, these researchers said so, I’m a doctor and I say so, amen.

P.S. The good Dr. Highfield used to work for Unilever.

Posted by Becky @ 11:38 pm  

8 Responses to “Psst! Scientists prove girls prefer pink! Pass it on!”

  1. MotherPie Says:

    Excellent article! Where the facts can be challenged (Bush’s speech and your link) on one hand and in another blink, something warps beyond truth…

  2. Deep Muck Big Rake » E&P photos of the year cover Says:

    […] keep the stories short, bub. Hey, here’s an idea. Why not make everything pink? I hear girls love pink. Posted by Becky @ 12:26 […]

  3. børge Says:

    I just read this, and just want to thank you for a very good, and very well researched article! You definitely deserve a lot more comments on this!

  4. ilinap Says:

    I call BULLSHIT!

  5. magpie Says:

    Go, Becky!!! You are the bomb.

  6. Will Blumentritt Says:

    I looked up your categories and came across Statistics and had to click it. Scrolling down, not much caught my eye until I saw this one.
    Very well done!!!

    My dream job would be to work for a CNN or something like that with a job of “putting things in perspective.” Remember the jalapeño pepper scare a year ago or so. Something like a hundred people got salmonella over a several week period and everybody was freaking out. 40,000 people a year get salmonella. Nobody reported that. I had to write a nasty note to NPR. Even they didn’t do anything to put it in perspective.

    SO, you and your sources did a great job at tearing up that “research”. I can’t believe crap like that get’s funded. It’s just absolutely incredible.

  7. Deep Muck Big Rake » Books: Rumors of our Progress have been Greatly Exaggerated by Carolyn B. Maloney Says:

    […] is the maker of Dove products (and major “research” funder), which are the basis for the Campaign for Real Beauty and its self-esteem education for young […]

  8. Deep Muck Big Rake » About ~ new Says:

    […] Psst! Scientists prove girls prefer pink! Pass it on! […]

≡ Leave a Reply


Designed by:

Powered by