The Science of Color: Do Women See More Colors Than Men?

Picture illustrating that women see more colors than men

Do women and men see color differently? There’s some emerging evidence that points to the idea that men and women actually have two different experiences when looking at the same color.

Studies consistently show that women are able to identify more colors than men. When looking at the same scene, women tend to pick up on shades within shades instead of simply seeing a flat, uniform hue the way that men often do.

What causes women to see more colors? The split appears to result from differences in the ways that the brains of men and women perceive color. This information is important because it taps into the idea that colors may impact men and women differently. As a result, everyone from artists to marketers may want to pay attention.

Talking About Color: Why Women Seem to Have a Larger “Color Vocabulary” Than Men

Colorful sky in many different shades

Researchers have long known that women have a much larger vocabulary of color than men.

We can look at this anecdotally in the way that a woman might describe what would be called a “red” sweater by a man as being a “berry” color.

Generally, it has been accepted that women tend to describe color with more nuance and distinction for shades within shades.

More recently, researchers have started to wonder if this chasm in color vocabulary is actually the result of men and women seeing colors differently. The latest research doesn’t disappoint.

One Color, Two Perceptions

Green and blue human eye close up

Researchers at CUNY’s Brooklyn College set out to use color experiments featuring men and women to get a grasp on exactly what male and female brains see when viewing colors. Interestingly, the findings seem to suggest that men and women frequently ascribe completely different shades to objects. Overall, women do tend to be more perceptive when it comes to tuning into color shades.

Women Are Quicker With Colors

When it comes to distinguishing between shades, men appear to be far behind women. Men have a particularly difficult time seeing differences in shades of green, blue and yellow.

In addition, specific colors can appear stronger or weaker depending on who is looking at them. For example, a color like orange is actually redder in the eyes of a man. Similarly, women may see yellow and yellow-green objects as appearing greener.

The newest research in gender-based color perceptions echoes decades of research concluding that women have a more nuanced perception of color.

Where Men Have the Color Advantage

Rainbow colored man running fast with trail of colors behind him

Women don’t beat men in every category of color perception. It turns out that men are actually better at perceiving changes in color when shown bars of varying degrees of light and dark flickering on a screen.

What does this mean? While men have a harder time seeing variances in shades, they are better at picking up fine details tied to rapid movement.

What Causes Men and Women to See Colors Differently?

While we don’t yet have the full picture for the differences in color perception among men and women, there are some pretty strong theories floating around.

The differences in color perception between men and women are likely linked with hormones. The researchers involved with the color studies at Brooklyn College largely believe that the expression of testosterone during early development actually influences the neurons in the brain’s visual cortex.

Different patterns of neuron receptors may be at least partly responsible for why color images are processed differently in the brains of men and women. There’s also a strong case to be made for the idea that color perception is adaptive.

Drawing of man and woman hunting and gathering

One explanation for why the brains of men and women react to colors so differently could be related to the evolutionarily roles of men and women.

Tasked with examining the skin and flesh of nuts and berries at close distance while foraging in natural environments, the female brain grew adept at noticing the subtlest of differences for distinguishing between “safe” and poisonous foods.

Meanwhile, the brains of male hunter-gatherers adapted to be able to spot stimuli linked with opportunities and dangers posed by predators and prey from a distance. This may look like being able to quickly see a silvery fish gliding under blue-green river water or the brown fur of a bear emerging from behind a tree trunk.

Final Thoughts: There Really Are Shades of Grey in How Men and Women See Colors

The research makes it pretty clear that men and women do see colors differently. While women are better at identifying more colors, men excel at spotting movements within color. None of this points to the idea that men and women are seeing two totally different colors when looking at the same color. The difference comes instead in the female brain’s ability to spot subtle variances within colors. The research we have to go by today ultimately suggests that women experience colors more vibrantly when compared to the flatter perception experienced by men.

Read Next: How Technology and Science Might Change the Future of Color