There’s an old joke that when picking out colors for home décor, a woman may see differences between “fawn, ginger, cinnamon and chestnut,” while guys more or less just see “brown.” Azure, cerulean, cobalt and sapphire? If you’re a guy, that would be “blue.”
However, this isn’t just a myth, and it isn’t just laziness on the part of men. There are very real differences in the way men and women process color, resulting in strengths and weaknesses for each gender. There are biological differences in the way the brains and eyes of women work together to see, perceive and make meaning out of color. It all stems from the way men and women have evolved over the centuries, and there are survival-based reasons for it.
Evolution and Survival
A study that came out of Brooklyn College led by Israel Abramov found that women tend to be more adept at discriminating among colors than men. By comparison, males are better than women at discerning detail from a distance and tracking quickly-moving objects. Both of these strengths have roots in evolutionary adaptations that probably have their origins in the hunter-gatherer phase of humans.
The study also found that women and men “saw” and ascribed differing shades/hues of color even when shown the same objects. Researchers believe that this is because males need a longer light wavelength than females to see and perceive the same shade of color. Longer wavelengths are linked with warmer tones like red, orange and yellow. Men are likely to see all warm colors a little “redder” or warmer than women do; however, they also perceive fewer differences generally.
Seeing the Grass as Greener
By contrast, women tend to see colors as more yellow-toned than men, perceiving hues like green as richer, warmer and “more green” than men do. Is the grass always greener on women’s side of the fence? This seems to be the case when it comes to color.
The study also found that in terms of distinguishing among color shades, men saw shades located near the middle of the color spectrum as more similar to each other than women. This means that women tend to see more nuances among greens, blues, yellows and browns in particular. However, this generalizing effect for men tends to be true to some degree for all colors.
Hunters vs. Gatherers
It all makes sense on an evolutionary level. As hunter-gatherers, women had to develop efficiency in the home and when gathering fruits and vegetables for the family. The ability to quickly discern between even the subtlest of shades would prove to be an evolutionary advantage. Picking the wrong berries or herbs could prove deadly, and being able to harvest food quickly and accurately would improve chances for survival.
As hunters, it would be more important to discern quick-changing details and movements from afar for hunting and staying safe out in the field or the forest. The team of researchers believe that both neural development in the brain as well as male hormones like testosterone help to support this ability. Men have around 25 percent more neural development in the visual cortex than women, according to the study results.
While women are actually less perceptive than men among different colors generally, especially from a distance, they fare much better when discerning subtle differences or nuances. So ladies, the next time you’re redecorating and considering paint or upholstery swatches, go easy on your guy. While you have the ability to see “artichoke, avocado, moss and fern,” don’t be surprised if he calls them all “green.”