Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A hardwired mental association?

Would you give this dog a male name or a female name? (Wikicommons)

Apart from any cultural or nurture-related factors, maybe we're just hard-wired to associate female with 'fair'. I have a small white fuzzy dog; everybody calls him a 'she' even though he rather obviously has a penis. However, no one assumes my small black dog is a 'she', ever."

There is an assumption that white or bright is associated with female and black or dark with the male. This sensory dimension—bright to dark—is a distinctive feature of gender and gender-related actions. There is historical and anthropological evidence that the gender categories, female-male and the sensory dimension-bright to dark-are associated. Indeed, sexual dimorphism of skin colour, namely that females have a lighter skin colour than males, is well established in research outside of the psychological literature (Semin et al. 2018).

Women are fairer-skinned than men, although the difference is smaller in very fair or very dark populations and larger in medium-colored populations (Frost 2007; Madrigal and Kelly 2007; van den Berghe and Frost 1986). This sexual dimorphism is due more or less equally to differences in melanin content and hemoglobin content of the skin. Women are thus pale in comparison to men, who look browner and ruddier (Edwards and Duntley 1939; Edwards and Duntley 1949; Edwards et al. 1941.). Parallel to this sexual dimorphism, lighter skin is mentally associated with femininity across a wide range of cultures (van den Berghe and Frost 1986).

How reflexive is this mental association? Very much so, according to a recent series of experiments with Dutch, Portuguese, and Turkish participants. In the first one, personal names were gender-identified faster when male names were presented in black and female names in white than when the combinations were reversed. In the second experiment, very briefly appearing black and white blobs had to be classified by gender; the former were classified predominantly as male and the latter as female. Finally, in an eye-tracking experiment, observation was longer and fixation more frequent when a black or dark object was associated with a male character and a white or light object with a female character (Semin et al. 2018).

We see similar results in two other studies: when given a word-association test, Navajo participants perceived the color black as more potent and masculine and the color white as more active and feminine. (Osgood 1960). In a British study, women were asked to optimize the attractiveness of facial pictures by varying the skin's darkness and ruddiness. They responded by making the male faces darker and ruddier than the female faces (Carrito et al. 2016).

Hardwired or softwired?

Is this mental association between skin tone and gender hardwired? That explanation is evoked at the outset of this paper, but toward the end the authors opt for learning:

One might well ask how this differential processing is likely to come about. One possible avenue is via the critical adaptive mechanism that humans have, namely their ability to extract regularities from their complex and noisy physical and social environments. This ability to extract regularities is automatic and is referred to as 'implicit learning' (Semin et al. 2018)

The 'implicit learning' hypothesis does not explain why this mental association is influenced by the sex hormones. Some kind of hormonal input is indicated by three studies. A brain-imaging study showed a stronger neural response in women to pictures of “masculinized” male faces, and this response correlated with their estrogen levels across the menstrual cycle (Rupp et al. 2009). In a personal communication, the lead author stated that the faces had been masculinized by making them darker and more robust in shape.

In another study, women had to choose between two facial pictures that were identical except for a slight difference in color. When male faces were shown, the darker one was more strongly preferred by women in the first two-thirds of their menstrual cycle (high estrogen/progesterone ratio) than by women in the last third (low estrogen/progesterone ratio). There was no cyclical effect if the women were judging female faces or taking oral contraceptives (Frost 1994). 

Finally, an estrogenic influence is indicated by a study of preschool children who had to choose between two dolls that differed slightly in skin color. Doll choice was the same for boys and girls. Below three years of age, however, the children who chose the darker doll had significantly more body fat than those who chose the lighter doll (Frost 1989). In that age range, estrogen is produced mostly by the body's fatty tissues (Baird 1976).

Perhaps there is both hardwiring and softwiring. People learn to associate lighter skin with women and darker skin with men. This learned mental association then interacts in the brain with a hardwired hormonal input. But why couldn't the mental association be hardwired as well? The mind tends to hardwire any recurrent task, thus shortening response time and cutting out learning time. For example, we have an innate ability to recognize faces. This is shown by prosopagnosia, a kind of brain damage where someone may seem normal and yet be no better at recognizing a face than any other object. At the other extreme are “super-recognizers” who are as good at face recognition as prosopagnosics are bad (Russell, Duchaine, and Nakayama 2009).

Then there’s that study of preschool children. Doll choice didn’t differ between the boys and the girls, but the children with more body fat had a stronger preference for darker skin, like the women during the high estrogen/low progesterone phase of their menstrual cycle. This doesn’t look like a learned preference.


Baird, D.T. (1976). Oestrogens in clinical practice. In J.A. Loraine and E. Trevor Bell (Eds.) Hormone assays and their clinical application, (p. 408). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Carrito, M.L., I.M.B. dos Santos, C.E. Lefevre, R.D. Whitehead, C.F. da Silva, and D.I. Perrett. (2016). The role of sexually dimorphic skin colour and shape in attractiveness of male faces. Evolution and Human Behavior 37(2): 125-33. 

Edwards, E.A., and S.Q. Duntley. (1939). The pigments and color of living human skin. American Journal of Anatomy 65(1): 1-33.

Edwards, E.A., and S.Q. Duntley. (1949). Cutaneous vascular changes in women in reference to the menstrual cycle and ovariectomy. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 57(3): 501-509.

Edwards, E.A., J.B. Hamilton, S.Q. Duntley, and G. Hubert. (1941). Cutaneous vascular and pigmentary changes in castrate and eunuchoid men. Endocrinology 28(1): 119-128. https://doi.org/10.1210/endo-28-1-119 

Frost, P. (1989). Human skin color: the sexual differentiation of its social perception. Mankind Quarterly 30: 3-16.

Frost, P. (1994b). Preference for darker faces in photographs at different phases of the menstrual cycle: Preliminary assessment of evidence for a hormonal relationship. Perceptual and Motor Skills 79(1): 507-14. 

Frost, P. (2007). Comment on Human skin-color sexual dimorphism: A test of the sexual selection hypothesis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 133(1): 779-781.

Madrigal, L., and W. Kelly. (2006). Human skin-color sexual dimorphism: A test of the sexual selection hypothesis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 132(3): 470-482.

Osgood, C.E. (1960). The cross-cultural generality of visual-verbal synesthetic tendencies. Behavioral Science 5(2): 146-169.

Rupp, H.A., T.W. James, E.D. Ketterson, D.R. Sengelaub, E. Janssen, and J.R. Heiman. (2009). Neural activation in women in response to masculinized male faces: mediation by hormones and psychosexual factors. Evolution and Human Behavior 30(1): 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.006 

Russell, R., B. Duchaine, and K. Nakayama. (2009). Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 16(2): 252-257.

Semin, G.R., T. Palma, C. Acaturk, and A. Dziuba. (2018). Gender is not simply a matter of black and white, or is it? Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences 373(1752):20170126

van den Berghe, P.L., and P. Frost. (1986). Skin color preference, sexual dimorphism and sexual selection: A case of gene-culture co-evolution? Ethnic and Racial Studies 9(1): 87-113. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.1986.9993516   


Anonymous said...

In the Yin and Yang symbol, the light represents male, the dark represents female.

Peter Frost said...

Originally, the dichotomy seems to have been Sun (male) versus Moon (female). It then became Day versus Night. If the same experiments had been conducted with Chinese participants, the results would have been very similar:

In the Chinese classical tradition — as in the Japanese that so largely stemmed from it — the celebration of whiteness as a criterion of feminine beauty is a familiar theme. A poet of the fourth century B.C. celebrated a bevy of beauties for their “black painted eyebrows and white powdered cheeks.” Of Yang Kuei fei, the most celebrated beauty in Chinese history, the Tang poet Po Chu i wrote: “So white her skin, so sweet her face / None could with her compare.” Hands and arms of “dazzling white” move gracefully through endless reams of ancient Chinese poetry. The most common metaphor for feminine skin was white jade, and references to all the visible surfaces of jade-colored female skin abound in poets’ songs. Chinese folk songs are similarly filled with the whiteness of generations of beloveds: “My sweetheart is like a flower,” sings one, “Please do not let the sun burn her black.” In story after story Chinese writers of the 1940’s were still quivering at the “snow-white” or “pure white” necks and arms of their heroines. There is some evidence that these standards have prevailed not only among effete upper-class Chinese but among rude villagers as well.

Isaacs, H. R. (1967). Group identity and political change: The role of color and physical characteristics. Daedalus 96(2): 353-375.

Complexions varied somewhat, and a lighter color was considered preferable to a dark. ... the lighter her skin, and the rosier and smaller the mouth, the better. ... the ideal physical man differed little except for an obvious distinction in buttocks and breasts, together with the expectation that a man’s skin would be darker.

Osgood, C. 1963. Village Life in Old China A Community Study of Kao Yao, Yunnan. New York: The Ronald Press. pp. 254, 274.

I could provide other sources, but the point seems obvious. Just ask any Chinese person.

Anonymous said...

Around the world it is more common for the sun to be regarded female, and it appears to be the oldest opinion but the light is considered as virile either way. One relevant ancient opinion is that the sun reflects the moon's light and heat. Light =/= pale-ness, anyway.

Sean said...

Palestinian girl is colossus of soft power because she is blonde.
Stop talking about Ahed Tamimi’s hair.

Anonymous said...

I doubt Ahed Tamimi's a pure Arab myself but West Asians do often have light hair that turns darker in their teens. Are people so surprised by this?

It has to be noteworthy that Western allies in Israel obviously associate a European appearance with hostile people in their minds. And the anti-Moslem Left in the West aren't putting Tamimi on a pedestal next to Malala, which seems to be because she looks whiter. Malala is an obvious foreigner who promotes Western values but she still wears a headscarf. She makes people feel reassured that Western values are better and the West is transforming the world for the better without disrupting the all-important diversity. Tamimi looks like a globalised white girl who knows what year it is, but she fights for her roots and its what they find most discomforting. "Implicit white-ness" indeed.

Anonymous said...

Peter, do you have views about this?

"Note, however, that the man’s skin is idealised as “white,” a poetic fiction common throughout the ancient Middle East and perhaps suggestive of a social status that relieves a person from agricultural labour under the sun (Longman 2001, 50–2 and 97)."

It suggests sexual selection for male whiteness in the ANE?


Peter Frost said...


Not only the ANE. In a pacified social environment, there is stigmatization of men who look too masculine. If you read Japanese mangas, you'll notice that the good guys are not normally depicted as being very muscular ("ripped"), as is very often the case in American comics. Such men are seen as being thuggish. Also, if you look at American comics over the past half-century, you'll see a trend toward hypermasculinization.

The Song of Solomon was written rather late in time, perhaps during the Hellenistic period. This was a time when standards of beauty for men were somewhat feminine. "My beloved is white and ruddy" ("Song of Solomon" 5:10), "his locks are bushy and black as a raven" (5:11), "his lips like lilies" (5:13), "his belly is as bright ivory" (5:14), and "his legs are as pillars of marble" (5:15).

The psychological effect of male and female physical characteristics, such as darker and lighter skin tones, cannot be understood simply in terms of desirability/undesirability. Male characteristics have an effect on women that can be both attractive and repulsive. We see this ambivalence in the case of male body hair or male body odor. Fair skin in a man evokes a less threatening body image, and that can either turn on or turn off a woman, depending on her mental state and cultural context.

Anonymous said...

Peter, "depending on her mental state and cultural context": is this about the menstrual cycle, and the matter of cads and dads?

But, it often crossed my mind that the difference between Japan's own depictions of themselves and Americans are merely reflecting racial differences - Japs just can't get as "ripped". So the ripped-ness of characters like Guts from Berserk or Haggar from Final Fight seems like a descriptive racial caricature of the time, a bit like Edo charicatures of white people. In addition the Japanese martial arts don't privilege raw strength so much as quickness, so there is a difference from (say) a Western boxer. They have a different ideal of what a fighter is or should be.

Peter Frost said...


I think this preference largely exists independently of the menstrual cycle (although there probably is variation with the menstrual cycle). I believe that sexual attraction to "cads" varies among women and that this attraction is, in turn, influenced by situational cues. I also believe that "cads" are less popular among women in societies where the culture has long been hostile to cads. This is a case of gene-culture coevolution, so there is both cultural suppression of sexual attraction and an actual reduction in sexual attraction.

I'm not an expert on Japanese culture. My comment was based on an interview with an anime artist who said that he didn't portray his male characters with bulging muscles because Japanese people associate that kind of body with thuggishness.

Unknown said...

Dear Peter Frost,

I think if you want to be a real race REALIST you have to paint the whole picture.
It is time for us melanized (my hair is darkbrown) people to change our old diseased ways and views.

Look, the reason you come to all these conclusions (even the medical scientific ones) is because how screwed up our evolution went. Darker complexion people are not meant to build great civilisations or be great leaders. We dont originally have this in our tasks which god gave us. We are not very good at being a man at all.

The reason you have this cultural preference kind of thing going on is another. It originated probably in the very fair people's culture, that the men (well they actually are being men unlike the rest of humanity) started to compliment the women about their fair looks. And then the rest of humanity who (read Fuerle's book "Erectus walks amongst us") doesnt want to put energy into loving their women just STOLE this theme from the fair skinned and adopted it to their needs. Because we arent creative enough to come up with a SOCIAL STRUCTURE that fits us, we take the social structure of the very fair skinned TO AN EXTREME, to cover up the THEFT and HIDE FROM GOD. Maybe its because some people among us want to "blend in", I dont know. But its the 21st century, damn it. We have to men up and do our own thing! This whole discussion, which you specialized in, is interesting but it makes us ruddier"men look like cry-babies compared to a good looking lightskin dude who clearly cherishes his own women instead of being a race traiting tosser.

You can see how wrong you are when you talk to real women on the streets how fed up they are about "rapefugees", does this reflect your "loving relationship of dark male and light female that you always illustrate? I can assure you this: girls are fed up with our wimpy dark-skin behavior, they are even grossed out! And its our men who continue to gross them out, and people like you who do this in the name of science :), UNLESS we stop behaving like this and start being less biased. Its time to love our own women! <3 I encourage you to start doing so by telling your female counterparts to stop brightening their hair because natural is always better.

Peter Frost said...

A few comments:

I wouldn't say: "Darker complexion people are not meant to build great civilisations." The earliest civilized peoples were actually rather dark-skinned. The conditions for creating large cities and building complex societies were actually better in semi-tropical environments (thanks to year-round agriculture, no need for indoor heating). These older civilizations then seemed to hit an upper limit to development, partly due to environmental problems (salinization of the soil, overgrazing, etc.) and partly due to the problem of maintaining an orderly society among large numbers of people who, for the most part, are not closely related to each other. Only two culture areas have been able to resolve the latter problem: northwest Europe and East Asia.

There is no genetic linkage between melanin and psychological traits. The correlation between the two is incidental:

- northern latitudes, with their yearly climatic cycle, tend to select for future time orientation (due to the need to store food for winter and early spring)

- beyond a certain point of cultural development, the conditions for gene-culture coevolution are better met in temperate latitudes.

- for reasons I've discussed elsewhere, the Mesolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers of the Baltic/North Sea evolved a high capacity for cooperation between non-kin, via a higher capacity for affective empathy, guilt proneness, and moral universalism. That evolutionary advantage was not fully exploited until several thousand years later.

As for the differing skin tones of men and women, they seem to evoke different psychological responses. These responses cannot be fully understood in terms of attraction/repulsion.