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He Sees, She Sees

Libi Astaire

It’s the age-old question: When two people look at the sky, are they both seeing the same color? If one is a man and the other a woman, they may actually be viewing different shades.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

colorful eyeThe world is replete with color in countless shades — the delicate pink of a rosebud, the vibrant red of a fire hydrant, even the lime green jello on your gold-flecked granite countertop. However, we don’t all see colors the same way. Recent research suggests women are keenly able to perceive subtle nuances between, say, azure and periwinkle, while many men won’t understand all the ado about blue.

In a popular 1940s story, Mr. and Mrs. Blandings are renovating their dream house. As Mrs. Blandings leads the contractor and painter through the rooms, she describes the exact color of paint that she wants: For the living room, a soft green that is not too blue and not too yellow and has just a hint of gray; for the dining room, a yellow that is similar to the color of fresh butter; for the kitchen, a white that is definitely white but is warm and not like hospital white, which is much too cold; and for the powder room, an apple red that isn’t dark like a grape sapling, but is more like a ripe Jester apple’s peel.

When she leaves, the contractor turns to the painter and says, “Got that?” The painter replies, “Sure. Green. Yellow. White. Red.”

The scene, with its contrast between the ultra-feminine Mrs. Blandings and the burly contractor and painter, always gets a laugh — but as it turns out, the laugh may be on us. When Mrs. Blandings goes into such detail about color, she’s not being a flighty female; she’s describing what she truly sees. But she probably won’t get what she wants, say modern researchers, and it’s not because the down-to-earth painter doesn’t respect her wishes. He just doesn’t see the world the same way; his perception of color is more limited.

Why are there marked differences in men’s and women’s perception of color? And do those differences impact the color preferences of each gender? (Hint: If you’re “tickled pink” by the questions, you’re probably a woman.)  

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