Color perception among XKCD readers

Randall Munroe subjected readers of his XKCD webcomic to a fun and informative survey on color perception and categorization. The results are both informative and extremely XKCDish.

Basically, women were slightly more liberal with the modifiers, but otherwise they generally agreed (and some of the differences may be sampling noise). The results were similar across the survey--men and women tended on average to call colors the same names. So I was feeling pretty good about equality. Then I decided to calculate the 'most masculine' and 'most feminine' colors. I was looking for the color names most disproportionately popular among each group; that is, the names that the most women came up with compared to the fewest men (or vice versa).

Here are the color names most disproportionately popular among women:

1. Dusty Teal
2. Blush Pink
3. Dusty Lavender
4. Butter Yellow
5. Dusky Rose

Okay, pretty flowery, certainly. Kind of an incense-bomb-set-off-in-a-Bed-Bath-&-Beyond vibe. Well, let's take a look at the other list.

Here are the color names most disproportionately popular among men: 1. Penis
2. Gay
3. WTF
4. Dunno
5. Baige

I ... that's not my typo in #5--the only actual color in the list really is a misspelling of "beige". And keep in mind, this is based on the number of unique people who answered the color, not the number of times they typed it. This isn't just the effect of a couple spammers. In fact, this is after the spamfilter. I weep for my gender.

Color Survey Results (via @ossington)


  1. I suspect that’s more a reflection of the fact that subteen boys think they’re being funny when they throw forbidden words around randomly and/or sabotage serious questions, and subteen girls don’t have that particular flavor of idiocy. They do have others; boys don’t go through the clique stage so strongly.

    Behaving childishly is regrettable but forgivable for a child. The problem is the folks who don’t outgrow it.

      1. All the subteens in my son’s class read xkcd. All of them, every single one. Even the girls.

        Ages 13-15….

      2. There seem to be plenty of 13 and 14 year olds. Not quite subteen, but definitely still. Did you see the forums after the comic that referenced 9/11? It was filled with comments like, “lol, I remember that, my first grade teacher freaked”

  2. If I had seen this in statistics class, maybe I would’ve been more interested in the field. What’s Randall’s mojo to be able to turn such dreary things as surveys into such hilarious results? When I read the report, I was expecting interesting and insightful results (disproving the doghousediaries comic for example). I certainly wasn’t expecting those male responses! I too weep for my gender.

  3. I wonder if the male vs female results say more about the character of the readership of Randall’s blog than anything else. As far as I could tell, he didn’t post a breakdown by gender and he didn’t tell us how popular those various color names actually were among those who chose them. Did “Dusty Teal” show up 5 times among the women and zero among the men, while “Penis” showed up 1000 times among the men and 10 times among the women? Or was it more like 500 vs. 5 and 10 vs. 0? No way of knowing from the info Randall has provided. What these numbers may actually suggest is that there are a lot of immature guys who read Randall’s blog. Which would not be a surprising result to me, I guess.

    1. He posts the data so you could analyze it yourself. I know that’s a lot of work. It’s true that Randall didn’t give that much information…just enough to whet your appetite.

  4. penis IS TOO a color, at least according to the sherwin williams color wheel. i painted my living room penis just last month. it’s two shades darker than clown testicle.

  5. I was a bit surprised that while the male readers, not unexpected, used fewer colour terms than the female readers, the male readers apparently did use a colour term that the women did not, that is, “salmon”. I am not a native speaker of English, so is there a special reason why precisely this colour term should be singled out by the men, and not, for example, “mint green”?

    1. Not to my knowledge. I thought salmon was pretty universal. But then, I’m a dude. And probably used it when I did the test (briefly).

  6. So, regarding “salmon” as a color from the men…

    I don’t know how many people typed it, but I know I did. It was an obscure reference to an episode of “Friends” where Ross loses a pink shirt which he incessantly refers to as “salmon”. In my case, at least.

    Which may not be worth much, since I’m colorblind and that color is right in the “wtf” region for me.

  7. We use salmon cause its physically impossible to say that “…k” word.
    Same goes for that “L” word.

  8. I think the use of flowers make sense when naming colours … they’re a category of objects that come in a wide variety of colours, and it’s easier to come up with appropriate modifiers when searching within a defined group. E.g. If I use “buttercup yellow” once, “rose red” is probably likely to come up later.

    Other useful object group: Food.

  9. This doesn’t surprise me in the least. Even long-time professionals who are male and deal with designers a lot still don’t know what beige really looks like, while women can usually identify it with no problem. When a male client asks for beige, what he really means is “tan”, a descriptor that is as vague as it gets. Women might identify magenta as “hot pink” while to me it is simply another process color. But I am designer who has worked in the field for 16 years after getting a degree from the Art Institute of Seattle. My color perceptions are ingrained in a profession where knowledge of it is paramount. I see the gender disparities in color perception all the time. Because of this, I happen to know that nobody knows color like a client’s nephew and I therefore must be color blind.

    1. I as curious about if I was correct with beige and wikipediaed it, and noted that under that is a tan telephone, which apparently was widely marketed as being beige. So maybe that’s the original route of the contamination :P

  10. So what’s this supposed to tell me? XKCD is for by fruity, festive women and sad, uneducated, unfunny men? That’s been obvious since the first/last time I followed a link to the place.

  11. Except that people who depend on color specificity for their jobs (graphic designers, specifically) never use words to describe colors, only numbers. “Hot pink” means very little, Pantone 807C means everything.

    1. I completely agree, and I think this has led to some confusion in interpreting these results. What many people would simply call “Penis” is actually a whole range of colors occupying a number of positions in the 470s and 690s.

  12. Men know “salmon” as a color because when their wives/girlfriends buy them a pink shirt, the men won’t wear it until the woman says:”That’s not pink, it’s salmon”.

    Women don’t use “salmon” as a color name because they know it is pink.

    Also “salmon” is a sport fish name and a food name so men think it sounds manly. They would not call a color “goldfish”.

  13. Anybody who thinks the colour-perception differences between genders has anything to do with sociology or gender-roles is ignorant of basic biology. The vast majority of men cannot approach women’s perception of colour any more than they can have a baby. Men and women literally see the world through different eyes. You can see this through a microscopic examination of the interior rear of any spare eyeballs you might have lying about.

    There are too types of light receptors there: rods and cones. Rods are simple on-off, light-dark sensors and are have a thin, rod shape. Cones are (you guessed it!) cone shaped and are much broader at the base. They detect colours. If one is hormonally male one has a lot more rods than cones; if female then many more cones than rods.

    So, from a female perspective males are accurately described as colour-blind. We don’t use, for example, different words for the colour red because, after all, for us there is only one kind of “red” – or near enough as to make no difference. Contrary-wise, due to the lower number of cones that can be packed into a given area, women have little night vision and relatively poor resolution. This is why many men are left wondering why women are speculating as to the root emotional causes of them sitting around in “the dark”: could it be depression? angst? But what is this “dark” of which you speak Madame? I was just sitting here reading the fine print on my credit card agreement by the glare of yonder firefly!

    Paperback cover designers have long known this. When I look at the cover of a Romance novel I see a muddy smear. Presumably women see a pleasing blending of that “colour” stuff they’re always talking about. A military adventure novel, on the other hand, has a pleasing, highly detailed panorama on it: seen by women as “a colourless riot of invisibly small figures”.

    1. Nadreck, you didn’t read the xkcd entry to the end, did you? Randall Munroes data at least shows that there is virtually no difference in color recognition according to gender.

      1. Ah, a comic-strip artist has done a (single) web-based survey. Time to re-write all of the biology and forensics textbooks written to date.

        You can’t perceive what isn’t being transmitted to your brain from any sensory organ.

        1. No, Nadreck, the survey was merely handiest. Those biology and forensics textbooks are of course more authoritative; you should read them.

          You’ll find that in the majority of men and the majority of women, eyes are identical. There is genetic (not hormonal) reason why a larger minority of men than women is colour-blind, and the same reason might result in occasional female tetrachromacy. In the majority of cases, however, there is no difference between male and female eyes.

    2. Huh? I’d like to see some peer reviewed proof of that statement.

      Most of the Masters are guys and miniature painting is a very big male hobby, which can involve hundreds, if not a thousand colours.

      Giving them all a name i would think is more down to education of colour names.

      I did some of the survey and came out with: Snot Green, Warlock Purple, Aqua, Regal Blue, Bright Green, Burnt Orange, Camo Green, Badmoon Yellow…. *cough* I might have a slight bias for names since im a warhammer 40k player.

  14. I typically go with the Crayola crayon box of colors…

    And yes I have a wife that corrects me, but I’ve learned that color is somewhat subjective. I know I am more sensitive to red than she is, while she precieves greens easier. It make color correctiving photos fun.

  15. I think “salmon” is the word marketers use to sell pink stuff to guys, so guys see it used a lot more than women do.

  16. I’m female and saw that color as dark salmon.

    I wonder if there are any regional differences?

  17. 1. Penis = engorged red
    2. Gay = fabulous fuschia, (that would be bright pink, fellas)
    3. WTF = that awful neon yellow they painted firetrucks for a while, as in WTF did they do to that firetruck?
    4. Dunno = ecru (see baige)
    5. Baige = the kinda fishbelly pale brownish-white shade of an under-cooked bagel

    Next on the list:
    6. Balls = a painful shade of blue
    7. Pussy = pink. Do you know how many more pinkish shirts the fashion industry would sell to straight men if they started calling it pussy instead of salmon?
    8. Beer = amber
    9. Pot = unexpectedly, this is a shade of weedy green, not black.
    10. Chips = pale yellow, although most stoners argue it is actually the bright orange shade of Nacho Cheese Doritos.

  18. The following are all “names” of the same color (depending on your context):
    R:100 G:158 B:213 (additive red/green/blue)
    H: 209 S: 53 B:84 (hue/saturation/brightness)
    L:69 a:-11 b:-29 (“Lab”, human eye centric)
    C:52 M:19 Y:2 K:0 (subtractive Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/blacK)
    649ED5 (Web Color)

    anything else means diddly.

  19. Every man I know who’s ever been part of a home improvement project with a wife or female SO has gone through a variant of this scenario:

    (Mrs Sojac)
    “Hon, can you help me pick out a color for the family room??”

    (Notary Sojac)
    “OK, whaddya want me to do??”

    (Mrs Sojac spreads out paint chips on table)
    “Here they are. Tell me which one is your favorite.”

    (Notary Sojac, looking at 27 indistiguishable shades of light-creamy beige)
    “Ummmm…..well….how about this?”
    (points to chip #16, chosen at random)

    (Mrs Sojac)
    (her face assumes a ‘did a rodent recently die under the table’ expression)
    “You….like…..THAT ONE???”

  20. I found it funny that I, a woman, didn’t know the correct spelling of fuchsia, but my husband did. I was telling him about these color survey results and I asked him if he knew how to spell fuchsia. He spelled it correctly without any hesitation. When asked how he knew that, he answered, “You know when you were a kid and you would try finding the F-word in the dictionary? F*** was never in there but I’d always find that word fuchsia.”

  21. re: #6 it’s also worth noting that there are two distinct and separate shades of “hot pink”

    I think Salmon might be a male term because that’s what department store salespeople call the color to sell pink shirts to men.

    “Oh, it’s *SALMON*, not pink you say? Well then, I’ll take three!”

  22. I was kind of surprised how broad a range of color gets named yellow and how little gets names magenta. Actually I was even more surprised that magenta was thought to be so dark.

    Then I tried taking the test, and it’s no surprise at all, and I’ve spent maybe $1000 on color management hardware and software and a calibrated monitor.

    something like this is a lot more interesting

  23. I would guess Randall’s readership is primarily in their teens and early 20’s, with numbers decreasing sharply as you search beyond age ~25 or below ~15. So we’re looking at a main body comprised mostly of high school juniors up through college sophomores. This is the age range where we typically see the most aggressive social behaviors; namely in competition for mates and status. Their logic centers will not finish development until ~30, so you have to expect some degree of erratic behavior.

    My guess is that the females regard Randall’s cartoons as intelligent yet playful, which are two traits many women find attractive. Thus they are more likely to offer honest, thoughtful answers when the cartoonist attempts to engage them. Males, on the other hand, see another male who seems to be more creative, intelligent and playful than they are. This activates a natural competitiveness in the young male and drives him to reply to the cartoonist’s questions with sarcasm or with what the audience member thinks is comedic or otherwise sabotaging to the experiment. In short, the young man wants to take control away from the cartoonist and assume it himself. It’s illogical, but it is how most social mammals behave when mating and establishing a pecking order are primary goals. Hence the seemingly idiotic answers from the boys and the overly flowery answers from the girls.

    That’s my theory, anyway. ‘Scuse the long comment.

  24. Ah, Nadrick. “Anybody who thinks the colour-perception differences between genders has anything to do with sociology or gender-roles is ignorant of basic biology.” Nice of you to write off fields that you apparently know nothing about. If I were to mansplain in similar sweeping statements, I’d say “Anybody who thinks that men and women see the world vastly differently because of presocial, universal sex differences is ignorant of basic anthropology.”

    Having read the actual empirical literature on color identification, I can tell you this: there are studies that find a small difference in the ability of Western college men and women to identify colors. The studies indicate nothing about why that difference is there. Nadrick states that it is due to structural differences in the eye produced by “hormones.” Do these same “hormones” (Nadrick seems to be implying testosterone) explain why different cultures have very different ranges of color terms? Or why poor “colorblind” men nevertheless dominate the high art and design professions in the West? Or why XKCD respondents who identify as male would term a color “gay”? Oh right! Our high testosterone makes us naturally homophobic idiots. Sheesh.

    Just look at any clothing catalog or website in the West. The same shirt being sold to men as “red” will be sold to women as “brick” or “barn.” We guys are just allowed to be lazy with our terms, while women are expected to show color sophistication. That’s socialization. Nothing wrong with our eyes.

  25. It would be interesting to ask respondents whether their father is red-green colorblind.

    Some studies have suggested that female carriers of the colorblindness gene are more likely to be tetrachromats, having four different colors of photoreceptors.

    1. If any respondents are tetrochromats, a test on an RGB monitor wouldn’t identify them.

  26. On the other hand . . .

    Giving “names” to colors is a female behavior. (I’m a guy, for the record.) Ask a male what color is “taupe” or “bone” and they have no clue. I think maybe Caterpillar tractors are “puce” — but they look “light green” to me.

    So, I have an undergrad minor in fine art, graphics. I use a pretty standard formula for describing colors: It’s a hue of the three primaries, red/blue/yellow. Then, the hue is either a “tint” or a “shade” depending where it falls in the grey saturation.

    “Dusty” — I knew a horse named Dusty.

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