Blogs > Jim Loewen > The Nature (or is it Nurture) of Color

May 6, 2013

The Nature (or is it Nurture) of Color

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Years ago, when I was teaching sociology at the University of Vermont, a colleague introduced me to a classroom exercise that he found useful for showing students gender differences. Eventually I wrote it up and Teaching Sociology published it.

The exercise had two parts. The first, labeled "Colors," listed eight colors -- not the easy ones like red, white, and blue, but puce, taupe, teal, mauve, magenta, chartreuse, ochre, and sienna. Students were to match each with one of ten definitions, such as "brilliant yellow" or "brownish gray."

The second half listed eight "Football terms": safety, screen, curl, trap, touchback, lateral, touchdown, and clip. Again we supplied ten definitions, such as "to block out a defensive player from the side after he has crossed the line of scrimmage."

In class, after students answered, I gave them the right answers. Then they filled in a little scoring form. They wrote down the number of color terms they got right, subtracted the number of football terms they got right, and added 8, to ensure all totals were positive numbers. Then I reseated the room with the highest scores to the front.

Even though readers here surely see the unfairness of the procedure, in class most students didn't. Of course, the result was, women students wound up overwhelmingly in the front, men in the rear. Most students assumed that women had shown more knowledge; only a few noticed that test-takers were actually penalized for knowing football terms. Men in particular were upset; many did not relish the possibility that they might be seated this way for the rest of the semester, according to their performance on such a "stupid" test.

Some male students who wound up in the front seemed embarrassed. I think some may have been gay, although one certainly need not be homosexual to be more interested in colors than football. Back then, and even now, I would not ask a student's sexual orientation publicly. Girls who wound up in the back usually credited their brothers or fathers for fostering an interest in football; rarely did they seem embarrassed. Perhaps this showed that male spheres of knowledge were more valued, or maybe it showed that girls' "tomboy" interests are not stigmatized while boys' "sissy" interests are.

My colleague and I used the exercise as a jumping-off point for discussing gender in society. We pointed out, for example, that in some executive lunchrooms, professional sports are a much more common topic of conversation than interior decorating. (That's certainly the case here in Washington, D.C., especially on Monday mornings during the National Football League season.) Indeed, the woman executive with nothing to contribute about sports can feel alienated or be viewed as aloof. Some years ago, The Learning Annex put out a self-help book to remedy this problem, How to Talk Sports to Men. "Does ERA mean only the Equal Rights Amendment to you?" it asked. Women who expressed their ideas in sports imagery, it suggested, became "easier for [men] to understand, even if the ideas ... remain the same."

Of course, some women didn't care. During the spring semester in 1993, coincidentally after I had used the exercise successfully in class, I watched the Super Bowl on television with three other people. An interesting play had just taken place on the field, and the other male and I were discussing it, when I noticed that the two women were conversing intensely about the name for the color of the sport coat worn by Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson, striding up and down on the sidelines. "Life imitates sociology class," I concluded.

The matter is not really trivial, however. Seemingly inconsequential differences in knowledge can lead to significant stratification by gender. Years ago, for example, working with Phyllis Rosser and John Katzman, I examined the serious gap in female performance on the math part of the SAT. We looked at performance by gender on old SAT items. Simply siting one item at a girls camp instead of a boys camp prompted girls to do better, boys worse. The item with the largest male/female gap of all involved sports statistics. Even my son -- no math whiz in high school and now an English teacher -- mastered sports statistics. They were important to him. By deleting that item and altering others, we were able to come up with a math test on which girls performed as well as boys.

Incidentally, "SAT" is not an abbreviation for "Scholastic Aptitude Test," even though most Americans think it is. Partly as a result of arguments I made to Nancy Cole, then Vice-President of Educational Testing Services, purveyor of the SAT, after Cole became president of ETS, the company removed "aptitude" from the title of the SAT (See The Validity of Testing in Education and Employment), renaming it the "Scholastic Assessment Test." A few years later, painfully aware that "Assessment Test" was redundant, ETS renamed the SAT once more. Now it merely stands for "S.A.T." -- the initials mean nothing at all!

Of course, our little teaching exercise was hardly the last word about gender and color. Indeed, a recent article in Smithsonian magazine (March, 2013) "50 Shades of Gray Matter," claims that women may have a genetic ability to distinguish colors better than men. The author, Libby Copeland, knows that "women possess a larger vocabulary than men for describing colors." This, she believes, already provides indirect evidence that it's genetic. (I would have thought exactly the opposite: the larger vocabulary suggests that girls have spent more time learning about colors and thinking about colors.)

As well, she cites research by Israel Abramov, "a psychologist and behavioral neuroscientist" at Brooklyn College. He found that "an object that women experience as orange will look slightly more yellowish to men." He deduces tentatively that Darwinian evolution is responsible: "males needed to see distant, moving objects, like bison, while females had to be better judges of color when scouring for edible plants." Copeland concludes, "Someday, further studies could reveal whether these traits could have implications for how men and women perform in fields such as the arts or athletics."

I suggest before we search for biological causes of gender differences, we first rule out likely social causes. Usually these exist in abundance. It's hardly rare to come upon a girl who by age twelve has been given dolls' outfits or girls' clothing in pink, scarlet, crimson, lake (yes, boys, "lake" too is a shade of red), vermillion, and magenta. It's hardly common to find a boy who by age twelve has not been given a football.

Looking for causation in the "hard" sciences may be trendier. And of course, it's hard to disprove that some eons-ago differentiation in occupation by gender led to higher survival rates for women with more color acuity. It is also difficult to prove such a causal argument, however.

And it's dangerous. When "hard scientists" conclude that girls have more ability in a given sphere by nature, feminists may applaud. They may not, when scientists conclude that girls have less ability by nature in some other sphere and therefore perhaps advise them against entering some important field of human endeavor. Certainly we should see where the evidence takes us. However, too-easy reporting like "50 Shades of Gray Matter" merely exemplifies lay credulity toward "science." Ms. Copeland along with Dr. Abramov may need a course in introductory sociology — may even need to experience our little color/football exercise.

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