Noticing the differences: explanations - Different ways of seeing

Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014

Noticing the differences: explanations
Different ways of seeing

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick.


Heated debate at Harvard

It is February 2005, and conference time. The President of Harvard, Larry Summers, is addressing a gathering set up to discuss why more female mathematicians and scientists are not breaking through the glass ceiling. Unwilling to be just a figurehead president, he intended to speak his mind and encourage debate. Eight times as many men as women are in leading professorships at Harvard, and he suggested that the under-representation of women in science and engineering could be due more to “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” and less to patterns of discrimination and socializations.

Professors from across America raise their voices in a chorus of disapproval and he was forced to leave Harvard after a noconfidence vote by Harvard Faculty. He had said that he wanted to “provoke” his audience but Summers, one of the youngest ever tenured professors at Harvard, misjudged the temperatures of the waters he was wading into.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of his particular assertion, the strong reactions that it provoked is testament to the controversy surrounding discussion of cognitive sex differences. The subject of innate differences between men and women is at the heart of an intellectual schism in academic circles as resilient and aggressive as anything Galileo encountered. As Larry Summers discovered, speaking of sex differences is construed in many circles as an act of heresy, and the slightest suggestion that Mother Nature plays a part, has you shouted down by those who insist that all differences between men and women must be attributed to social processes and cultural conditioning. The aspiration can then be one of Equal Opportunities, policies based on a philosophy of sameness, of giving equal opportunities to all, in a practical concern to ensure that men and women have equal access to jobs and promotion possibilities.

The notion of equality, fought for all through the last century by blacks against whites, and women against men, is almost always accompanied by the notion that all of us — black or white, men or women, gay or straight — have an equal right to succeed and should be judged against the same measures. This does not always, however, deliver the hoped-for level playing field since the standards against which people are measured are not always the impartial, neutral values that many imagine them to be. Seeking a thrusting leader who leads from the front and is not shy of making decisions without reference to the group? That may be a model that more men can satisfy than women. Seeking a designer who can pare things down to minimalist proportions and embed simplicity in their product solutions? As we shall see later, criteria like these may be more highly prioritised by men than women, and lead men to more easily demonstrate them in their portfolio than women. So the notion of the ’best’ person is ultimately very complex and often modelled, as we saw in the last chapter, on the characteristics and preferences of the most senior people in the organisation.

When it comes to the visual differences we have observed in the men and women’s production and preference aesthetics, the sixty-four thousand dollar question is what lies at the root of these differences.

Reasons for differences

I had an inkling that it would not be easy to find answers to these questions as a result of an experience at an academic conference. The event celebrated the work of a French sociologist who had written on gender, and I had given a presentation on the differences we looked at earlier in the way that the boys and girls coloured in their cookers. My closing remarks were greeted by waving hands. “Surely the results have their origin in the fact that girls and boys are taught in school to colour in differently?” This was baffling since I had certainly not been taught how to colour in and neither had my son (more’s the pity!) so the notion that boys and girls receive separate instruction was fanciful. Later on, in the coffee break, I overheard someone asking, “Who allowed her into the conference?” and realised that to explain gender differences through anything other than societal influences is heresy in certain circles.

In the sections that follow, we will put political correctness to one side and take a hard look at the evidence on the impact of social and cognitive factors on the gender differences in visual creations and preferences.

Social factors

So why do people prefer designs by their own gender? Could one explanation be that we are drawn to the familiar? Not long ago, I was chatting to a young female photographer who had won first prize in a national competition, and the focus of the conversation was on the winning shot. “It was of a young boy,” she said, “and the judge mentioned how much it reminded him of images of himself as a child.” This is an example of what marketers call the ’mirroring principle’, one in which people make positive responses to images that reflect aspects of themselves. So, it is not inconceivable that the judge had an unconscious preference for the winning photo since it mirrored aspects of himself.

Confirmation of this process is provided by an excellent 2004 study from the Czech Republic. The researchers, Ulrich Orth of the College of Business in Oregon, and Denisa Holancova of the Department of Marketing and Trade in the Czech Republic, compared the reactions of 320 consumers to adverts showing different configurations of people. Sometimes, consumers were shown photos of two women, two men, or one of each, and they were asked to offer their reactions.

The results were startling. They showed a statistically significant tendency for men and women to prefer adverts showing people of their own gender. This tendency was particularly pronounced in the case of women with their preference for seeing female images even stronger than men’s preference for male images. This conclusion is paralleled by research from Toyota showing that recall of vehicles is higher among women when the drivers depicted show women rather than men.

Cognitive factors

Cognition is the process of knowing and understanding things in the widest sense, based on our perception of the world and the sensations we receive from it. Cognitive abilities include, for example, our ability to reason verbally or non-verbally (as in mathematics) and the size of the word vocabulary we use in daily life.

Visual-spatial cognitive abilities are used when we are coordinating what we see with our understanding of our position in space — vital to the success of the movements we then make to get what we want or where we want.

Diane Halpern is past-president of the American Psychological Association and Professor of Psychology at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of a book on cognitive sex differences, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (2000), in which she describes sex differences in the visuospatial as the most robust and persistent of all the cognitive sex differences. Her confidence is rooted in an exhaustive review of the published literature on sex-related differences in spatial abilities in 1995. This study, led by Voyer, reviewed 286 studies of visuospatial abilities and concluded that “sex differences in spatial abilities favouring males are highly significant” and that “sex differences in spatial abilities do exist.” So confident were the authors that they hoped their study would “close the debate concerning the existence of sex differences in spatial abilities.” Other psychologists have followed in declaring the significance of visuospatial differences, with Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University and author of Brain Gender, showing 3-D rotation skills as the biggest sex difference after height.

A word on terminology. When psychologists report on ’visuospatial skills’, they normally refer to three types of ability namely mental rotation skills, spatial perception and spatial visualization. Mental rotation skills measure the ability to imagine the appearance of three-dimensional objects rotated in space, whilst spatial perception is understood as the ability to determine spatial relations despite distracting information. The third skill, spatial visualization, is one commonly described as the ability to manipulate complex spatial information. The evidence of sex differences on all three areas is extremely robust.

Visuospatial skills: origins and modern manifestations

Superiority in 3-D rotations refers to an ability to imagine a 3-dimensional object rotated in space and would provide superior 3-D vision. Remember how challenged the Covent Garden designers were with three-dimensionality? And remember the male obsession with straight lines which led the male Hanzi script to use only straight lines unlike its female equivalent? The difficulties in 3-D experienced by the female designer may have their origin in inferior 3-D rotational skills, while men’s obsessive use of straight lines may be an evolved trait born of millennia of using 3-D vision to track prey against a distant horizon.

That is not all. Since we know that excellent 3-D vision assists with targeting accuracy, men’s superior skills would have assisted in guiding and intercepting projectiles. One study, for example, asked men and women to carry out a timing test that involved pressing a key once a moving target hit a stationary line: not surprisingly, women were less accurate than the men. So who enjoys the computer games most in your home? And who is more likely to enjoy a game of darts, football or golf? Equally important, if she likes polka dots, it could be very much linked to the thousands of years her female antecedents spent picking berries while his fondness for straight lines links to the millennia his forbears targeted prey against a flat and distant horizon.

Language skills

Professor Melissa Hines compared the strength of different cognitive sex differences and has sex differences in verbal fluency as half as significant as 3-D rotations. The low claims for linguistic differences are echoed elsewhere. Professor Doreen Kimura, for example, wrote an article on sex differences in 1992 in which she offered low “effect sizes” (measurements of the size of the sex difference) for linguistic differences. When you look at how low these figures are, you can see why Deborah Cameron, Oxford Professor of Linguistics, in her book The Myth of Mars and Venus (2007) plays down linguistic sex differences.


Not long ago, I was asked to invigilate an exam. Seconds before the exam was due to start, a student shot up his hand: “Excuse me, but should I be using this mauve sheet?” The other invigilator, a Welshman, paused a second: “Yes … but as to whether it’s mauve and not violet or purple, you’d have to ask my wife.” This is a Welshman with a gift for slick repartee, but there is more than a kernel of truth in what he says. Men and women do not necessarily perceive colour in the same way.

Four factors may be involved. The first relates to the fact that, compared to men, women may have a greater variety of cone-shaped cells responsible for colour perception. Men’s retinas, on the other hand, will contain 130 million rod-shaped cells (photoreceptors) designed to deal with black and white. The greater proliferation of cones in women will lead them to see more colours than men, and describe them in more detail. While for him it will be ’red’, ’blue’ or ’green’, for her it will be ’aqua’, ’mauve’ or ’apple green’. This is likely to confound even the slickest of car salesmen. The greater variety of women’s cone-shaped cells may also explain why women prefer brighter colours.

The second fact relates to the finding that a larger proportion of men (8%) than women (less than half a per cent) suffer from colour blindness and at least 15% of men suffer from anomalous trichromatism (a problem with all three colour pigments). Expressed as raw percentages, these figures may seem rather abstract, but if you translate them into numbers you get a better feel for the numbers affected. The number of British men with anomalous trichromatism works out at four million, with a further two million suffering from colour blindness. This contrasts with about 135,000 females suffering with colour blindness. If you do the calculations for America, you end up with almost 9 million colour-blind males and 600,000 women.

Interestingly, the level of colour blindness in men is not constant across the world but fluctuates with the duration of twilight. The shorter duration of twilight at the equator leads to lower levels of colour-blindness, while the longer periods of twilight at higher latitudes is associated with a greater incidence of colour blindness. Could this explain why the colours of the Oslo underground struck me, with my female eyes, as so strange? Maroons and pale greens together do not do much for me personally.

Joking apart, we should be careful not to present colour-blindness as a disability, not least because it actually confers an advantage in certain situations. How so? Well, colour-blind people can penetrate camouflage that fools everyone else, offering a great advantage to hunters who can better pick out prey against a confusing background. It can also help in active service against enemy lines, explaining why bomber crews in the Second World War liked to include at least one colour-blind member who could penetrate certain kinds of camouflage on the ground.

A third factor may be involved. The bombshell discovery in the last decade has been that anything between 3—50% of women (that is between 96,000 and 15.1 million women in the UK and between 15 million and 250 million in China) have a fourth additional cone between the red and green cones. This additional cone would give women the ability to see vastly more hues than those with only three pigments and would explain why the American interior decorator, Mrs Hogan, can hold up three samples of beige wall paint: “and I can see gold in one and gray in another and green in another but my clients can’t tell the difference.”

Extra colour pigment

It may be difficult for those with three colour pigments, run-of-the mill ’trichromats’, to imagine what a four-colour world would look like. However, mathematics alone suggests the difference would be astounding, says Dr Jay Neitz, a renowned colour vision researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Each of the three standard colour-detecting cones in the retina — blue, green and red — can pick up about 100 different gradations of colour, Dr Neitz estimated. He went on to say that the brain can combine those variations exponentially so that the average person can distinguish about one million different hues. According to a British commentator, John McCrone, writing in the British medical journal The Lancet Neurology, “many women — perhaps 1% — are in fact tetrachromats” with a fourth eye pigment to supplement the three pigments (red, green and blue) that no man to our knowledge exceeds.

McCrone’s estimate is typical British understatement since researchers in the US have estimated the percentage of tetrachromat women as somewhere between three and fifty per cent of the gender! The importance of this cannot be underestimated given the effect of an additional colour pigment. To give you an idea, having a single eye pigment allows you to discriminate between about 200 different shades of grey whereas dichromacy (two pigments) swells your colour experience to about 10,000 different shades; trichromacy, the human norm of three pigments, multiples the total number of hues you can perceive to several million; and tetrachromacy, the preserve of an indeterminate number of women, opens the door to literally hundreds of millions of colours. This is explosive stuff. Setting out clearly the information provided in McCrone’s article in the medical journal, The Lancet Neurology, you can see the incremental increase in colour perception driven by an additional colour pigment:

1 pigment -> 200 shades

2 pigments -> 10,000 shades

3 pigments (trichromacy) -> several million shades

4 pigments (tetrachromacy) -> hundreds of millions of shades

Why should tetrachromacy be the exclusive preserve of women? The genes for the pigments in green and red cones lie on the X chromosome and, since women are alone in having two X chromosomes, it is only in women that a particular type of red cone be activated on one X chromosome and a different type of red cone on the other. In some women, there may also be distinct green cones on both X chromosomes. So, next time you buy him a tie, you might buy navy blues and bottle greens rather than emerald greens and turquoises. On the other hand, if you buy her something in bottle greens or navy blues, you might want to make a quick exit!

Blue and red

A fourth factor relates to the fact (discovered in 2000) that males and females produce different cortical responses to the stimulation of blue and red light wavelengths. This exciting finding is consistent with the older observation that women are more sensitive than men to the long-wave spectrum of light that detects red, and that when looking at a field of uniform brightness women hold the perception of red significantly longer than green (during the after-image study, all the female subjects, but only 50 per cent of the males, reported seeing red). It is not surprising then that women have a significant memory advantage for the purple-pink range of colours.

Two recent studies have confirmed women’s love affair with pink and lilac. The first, by Dr Yazhu Ling et al in 2004, showed how women single out lilac-pink colours from a range of equally light (i.e. bright) colours. The second by Professor Anya Hurlbert and Dr Ling of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 2007 tested the colour preferences of 208 volunteers, and it created such a stir that it was reported in the world’s media. In fact, the experiment was beautiful in its simplicity. Equal proportions of men and women aged 20—26 (80% were British white Caucasians and 20% recent immigrants to the UK from mainland China) were asked to view 750 pairs of colours spanning the entire rainbow and click the colour they preferred. The results? The male favourite was a pale blue and the female favourite a lilac shade of pink.

Hurlbert was surprised by the results: “Although we expected to find sex differences, we were surprised at how robust they were, given the simplicity of our test.” She had expected British women might prefer pinker shades since Western culture and toys promote pink for its girlishness and femininity. However, the Chinese women in her study showed an even greater liking for pinkish hues than their British female counterparts and they had grown up without commercial toys like Barbie that promote pink to girls. These findings have led Hurlbert to believe that women’s attraction towards pinkish colours is innate.

Yellow and orange

These recent experiments have focused on blues and reds but Hans Eysenck, Professor of Psychology at the UK’s Institute of Psychiatry from 1955 to 1983 and the psychologist most frequently cited in science journals in his lifetime, undertook a review of colour studies in the 1940s. There he spoke of yellow and orange colours showing the biggest gender difference with women preferring yellow to orange and men the converse. Eysenck was no stranger to controversy and famous (or infamous!) for linking performance on IQ tests with racial origins. It is good therefore to see art historian and colour specialist, Faber Birren (1900—1988), author of 25 books on colour, state that men prefer orange to yellow and that women place orange at the bottom of their list!

Men’s seeming fondness for orange may explain why so many companies, for example Easy Jet airlines, Orange and Sainsbury’s supermarket, use orange as their main corporate colour. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is whether these colours are optimised for the all-important female element in their markets. I have my personal doubts and can think of colours that would make a greater impact on this target market.

Colour combinations

Colours do not always appear singly so how do men and women’s reactions to colour compare? Back in the 1930s, Joy Paul Guilford, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Southern California, teamed up with Elysbeth Allen to compare the type of colour combinations preferred by men and women. They found something of potentially enormous significance namely that close colour combinations (i.e. colours that are close to each other on the colour wheel) are more pleasing to women than to men. We discuss colour combinations in Chapter 9 when we look at art so you might want to keep this in the back of your mind.

Meanwhile, there is another interesting question. Do men and women pay equal attention to colour and form? When I was combing the research literature on male and female vision, I stumbled across research from the early 1930s showing that women may perceive colour before form, and vice versa for men. This research was conducted at the University of Cambridge Psychological Laboratory and those who perceived shape first were described as “form dominant” and those perceiving colour as “colour dominant”. This is a fascinating discovery and we can only hope that the study is repeated again. At the very least, new research might show whether this is a contributory factor in women’s attitudes to colour. Remember the additional colours that women use when advertising on eBay? Women might describe themselves as “particular” while men might prefer the word “fussy” when describing women’s attitude to colour.


Speaking of fussy, some might say this about women’s desire to tidy things away or remove the crumbs from the table. In fact, American researchers Irwin Silverman and Marion Eals charted the elements at work and found that it had less to do with being fussy than observant. They asked students at York University in Toronto to memorise a picture full of objects, and then attempt to recall them (this is a test of ’object memory’ which you may recognise from games you played as a child). In a second experiment, the students were asked to recall the location of objects they’d seen in a room (this is a test of ’location memory’). On both measures of memory, females performed a massive 60—70% better than the males.

Moreover, in experiments using ecologically valid stimuli (technical-speak for real plants in complex naturalistic arrays!), women have been found to display superior object memory (Neave et al, 2005). Dr Nick Neave and his colleagues at the University of Northumberland showed five different plants (one at a time) to 30 men and 27 women and then asked them to find the same plants in five separate locations. In one test, women found the targets significantly faster than the men while in another, women correctly located significantly more targets. So next time you find your man’s socks, you can quote this study to demonstrate your superior skills!

So good is women’s perceptivity that, according to the bestselling book Why Men Don’t Listen & Women Can’t Read Maps, a woman’s brain can allow her to receive an arc of at least 45° clear vision to each side of her head, and above and below her nose, giving her a peripheral vision that is effective up to almost 180 degrees. This helps explain why as soon as she walks into a room she can effortlessly pick up details that are hidden to most men while he, with his better forward vision, can best focus on what is straight ahead. Remember his reaction when you asked his simultaneous opinion on six different dresses draped across the bed?

Field independence

To complete the picture on visuospatial differences, we need to mention ’field independence’, the extent to which men and women perceive something separately from its environment. There is some evidence that men may be more field independent than women, in other words more likely to perceive stimuli divorced from their surroundings (Hyde, 1981; Halpern, 2000). Women, conversely, are less likely to detach themselves cognitively from their surroundings or to be able to make out hidden figures (Hall, 1984).

The consequence? Men can be happy in outfits that don’t match (remember that tie?) or with buildings that stick out like a sore thumb. The San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, for example, was created by an all-male team in 1933, and the clash between the red of the bridge and the blue of the water makes the influence of field independence a real possibility. Another clear example, this time from the UK, is the controversial spiral-shaped extension proposed in the late 1990s to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London’s South Kensington. This museum, the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, houses a permanent collection of more than 4.5 million objects, and thoughts turned to an extension in which to provide more gallery space.

The so-called “Spiral” of New York architect Daniel Libeskind emerged as the winner in a competition and became an immediate cause célèbre. Several observers likened it to a pile of falling cardboard boxes or, in Cecil Balmond’s words, to “a Hitchcockian staircase in Vertigo.” The apparent lack of continuity with the adjoining nineteenth century brick and terracotta building was a positive for Balmond; and for Libeskind too, the lack of connection was the essence of the building’s attraction. Writing in his autobiography, Breaking Ground, Libeskind stated that: “For me, it’s not just about the wow, but also about the experience of dislocation, the shock to the system that comes from seeing something jarringly new or unexpected.” In his words, the impact on the viewer was to “feel as if you have arrived in another place, between the known and the unknown.”

For many, however, the lack of congruity became a major sticking point, and as time dragged by the possibility of Lottery funding disappeared. Some of the objectors were men, showing the tendency for non-homogeneous responses in all areas of visual taste. The tendency for greater ’field dependence’ in women than men would, however, lead women, more than men, to want objects to ’match’. You have only to think about how long most women spend — in contrast to their male counterparts — looking for the right accessories for clothes and for their home to get an idea of this! In fact, a female friend caught me moving the furniture round one day (I was trying to get the right balance of colours and shapes) and I had already come in for a bit of flack and criticism from male friends. I expected something similar from my female friend, when in fact I heard her say that: “I do this a lot and my husband thinks I am out of my mind. It is good to see that I am not the only one with this habit.” If a man does not understand the visual discomfort experienced by the woman, then he well might find her actions incomprehensible and indeed infuriating!

Underlying factors

We have already looked at the biological influences on colour perception and an exciting study in 1999 revealed striking gender differences in the part of the brain responsible for 3-D vision. This is the inferior parietal lobule (IPL) and a study by scientists at Johns Hopkins discovered that, after allowances for men’s larger overall head and brain size, men had roughly 6 per cent more IPL than women. Another difference was that men had a larger left IPL than right, and the reverse in women.

According to psychiatrist Godfrey Pearlson, MD, the right IPL is linked with the memory of spatial relationships as well as a person’s own feelings, while the left IPL is more involved “in perception, such as judging how fast something is moving and having the ability to mentally rotate 3-D figures.” This study in 1999 provided a simple explanation for men’s superiority at 3-D tasks. It is all the more powerful when you realise that there is a second factor that predisposes men to good 3-D vision. This is the fact that, on average, men’s eyes are spaced 5mm further apart than women’s thereby allowing the eyes to rotate at a wider angle and offering better depth perception and stereoscopic vision. Incidentally, it is not just 3-D vision that is improved but long-distance tunnel vision too. Women, lacking this advantage, have better peripheral vision and near-sightedness instead.


A reminder of another factor at play emerged in a chance conversation with a school leaver on a train. Susan told me that she was planning a career as an art therapist and was undertaking work experience in a primary school. “There is one girl in the class whose drawings are amazing. When she is angry, the lines on the picture are strident and black. As soon as she calms down, the straight lines give way to gentler, more undulating shapes.” Welcome to the missing ingredient, personality.

Do you remember the ’Draw a Person Test’ and how people’s drawings often reflect aspects of themselves? As Susan showed, it is not just physical features but psychological features that can shine through, and there have been some fascinating studies investigating the psychological links between personality and drawings. Some of the first were by psychologists Gordon Allport and Philip E. Vernon who showed in the 1940s how personality shines through in people’s expressive and creative movements.

At around the same time another researcher, Trude Waehner, succeeded in producing accurate descriptions of nursery age children and adolescents by studying their drawings and paintings. The key was decoding the language of colour and shapes into personality features with aggression interpreted as having a graphic manifesting in sharp edges with fewer than half of the shapes curved; energy, impetus and initiative meanwhile were interpreted as manifesting in greater colour than form variety.

A year after Trude Waehner’s study, two art therapists Rose Alschuler and La Berta Hattwick did something similar with the paintings of 2—4 year old children. Those who used curved and continuous strokes were found to be more dependent, compliant, affectionate, unconfident and fanciful than those with straight lines. Similarly, those who drew circles proved to be more dependent, withdrawn, submissive and subjectively orientated than those who painted vertical, square or rectangular forms. The connections led them to observe that:

almost every drawing and painting made by a young child is meaningful and in some measure expresses the child who did it. Children tend to draw and paint what they are feeling and experiencing rather than what they see.

Fast forward to the present and Judith Harris. Professor of Educational Technology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia wrote that, “Eighty years of research into projective and non-projective assessment of children’s drawings suggests that it is indeed possible for characteristics such as … personality, attitudes, emotions and behaviour to be reflected through children’s artistic works.”

This quote comes from a fascinating article written by Judith Harris in 2007 in which she discusses teachers’ ability to assess children’s personalities from their graphic creations. There were three sources to this work — free-hand compositions, computer-generated ones and compositions using a touch-sensitive graphics tablet. None of the teachers knew the children, and yet remarkably 69% of their assessments correlated with the views of parents and class teachers. You may be thinking that it is one thing discerning differences in the writing of children whose writing may vary greatly on account of developmental issues, and discerning differences in the writing of adults. In this case, you will interested to read in the next section about work done to make inferences about personality from the drawings of prisoners.

Analysis of prison inmates’ drawings

Similar results came from a study in the UK conducted amongst inmates of a therapeutic prison, Her Majesty’s Prison at Grendon. The researcher, Bill Wylie, was Head of Art Therapy at the prison, and he set himself the task of judging, from an evaluation of inmates’ artistic work, the extent to which the ’artist’ was ready to take part in group work. Although he had never met the creators of this artwork, he judged that five of the ten ’artists’ were suited to group work and five not. Remarkably, even though Bill’s assessments were not part of any assessment process, the five Bill considered unsuited to group work were moved to a non-therapeutic prison within a year.

How did Bill Wylie manage to be so accurate? Bill wrote that “the style and content of the artwork reflects the psychic state of the person” and he offers clues as to how different artistic elements can be interpreted. A negative emotion, for example, tends to be associated with dark colours (black or brown) while yellow and orange are often associated with positive, happy feelings. Meanwhile, the left hand side of the page is viewed as denoting the past, and the right the future so when black is used on the left and yellow on the right Bill interprets this as indicating a negative past but a positive attitude to the future. He writes that the size of an image is also significant and that “appealing figures are exaggerated in size and potentially threatening figures reduced.” So, once you know the rules, you can decipher personality using painterly characteristics.

The next obvious question is whether men and women’s personalities differ. If they do, and the transfer of personality characteristics to paintings take place, then this would be another factor influencing male and female graphic expression. So the crucial question is whether they differ or not.

Gender and personality

Looking into gender and personality, like so much to do with gender differences, is a bit of a quagmire but worth wading into with appropriate safety equipment! One team of researchers asked respondents in 25 different countries across the world to choose from a list of 300 adjectives (such as aggressive, artistic, bossy) that they thought characterised men and women, and in every one of the 25 cultures a majority of the respondents described women as “sentimental” and men as “adventurous”, “dominant” and “forceful”. In 24 of the 25 cultures respondents described women as “affectionate” and “sensitive”, and men as “aggressive”. These stereotypes, referred to in the psychological literature as gender schemas, are well defined and ubiquitous.

The divergence in men and women’s levels of aggression are such that even Professor Janet Hyde, originator of the “gender similarities hypothesis” (which holds that men and women are more alike than different), acknowledged that men are more physically aggressive than women. In comparisons of the results of different studies, she found significant differences on aggression of all types — including “direct aggression”, “physical aggression” and “indirect aggression” as well as on physical aggression. These are important differences and you might think that they would manifest in the drawings that people produce.

In fact, the art therapists Alschuler and Hattwick, writing in the 1940s about children’s drawings and paintings, described how they were able to infer personality from their drawings. They said that the girls’ use of colour was more “intense and persistent” than the boys’, something they put down to girls’ greater emotionality; by contrast, they put down the strong colours and heavy, vertical strokes in the boys’ pictures to “masculine tendencies”.

Underlying factors

Arguably the most controversial question concerns why these behavioural differences occur. I am not ducking the issue if I say that in the short space of this book we cannot go into this too deeply. My own view, for what it is worth, is that a mixture of nature and nurture is at work, with nature very likely serving the cause of evolution. You will see what I mean in the sections that follow.

Nature and brains

In The Female Brain, doctor and psychiatrist Dr Louann Brizendine (2006) explains the dominant role played by hormones in human behaviour. She became aware of this as a student when she asked a professor at Yale about the gender of subjects in a particular experiment. His reply was that they never used females since “their menstrual cycles would just mess up the data.” Even so, it took decades for the medical scientific community to recognise that, medically, women were not just small men. “When these patients with PMT problems tried to talk to their own doctors or psychiatrists about how their hormones were affecting their emotions, they would get the brushoff.”

Brizendine now works as a gender-specific psychiatrist at the Langley Porter Institute in San Francisco, treating about 600 women a year. In her view, hormones can “create a woman’s reality” (p. 3) shaping “women’s desires, values and the very way she perceives reality.” Early oestrogen can stimulate the female brain circuits and centres for observation as well as communication, gut feelings, tending and caring. “Genes and hormones create a reality in [women’s] brains that tell them social connection is at the core of their being.” The hormones do not cause the behaviour but “raise the likelihood that under certain circumstances a [certain] behaviour will occur.”

It seems that our brains are shaped by hormones. Up to the beginning of the eighth week of life, all brains start as female brains (“female is nature’s default gender setting”) and then once testosterone kicks in the male brain takes shape. At peak age, around twenty-one, men have eight times the volume of testosterone as women, and if testosterone is administered to non-human female foetuses late in gestation more typically masculine behaviour results.

By analogy, the Japanese study we looked at earlier showed that girls with an overproduction of adrenal androgen, a male hormone, produce pictures that display “more strongly masculine characteristics in motif, color and figure composition … [with] scanty depiction of persons, dark-colored drawing, stacking, bird’s-eye views and mobile objects.” The feminine index for the pictures of these girls is significantly lower than for unaffected girls.

We should not be surprised by these results. It seems that in utero and postnatal exposure to gonadal steroids (principally testosterone and estradiol) is associated with differential personality and spatial abilities in humans and some animal species. It also appears that exposure to androgen (the male hormone) during foetal life promotes the differences in male vision we have noticed. Moreover, other studies show us that girls with an overproduction of adrenal androgen have better spatial ability than unaffected girls, with notably better performance in mental rotation tests.

So, hormones shape our brains; and according to research published in December 2013, there are significant differences in men and women’s brains. Part-funded by the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, this is a mammoth piece of research with a roll-call of heavyweight co-authors and nearly 1000 participants. The study’s ten authors include Ragini Verma, Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and colleagues Ruben Gur, Professor of Psychology and Raquel Gur, Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology and Radiology, both Directors of the Brain Behaviour Laboratory in the same University’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Verma summarised the results:

What we’ve identified is that, when looked at in groups, there are connections in the brain that are hardwired differently in men and women. The study found a greater degree of neural connectivity from front to back within one hemisphere in males … women’s brains meanwhile were wired between left and right hemispheres … facilitating communication between the analytical and intuitive [functions].

The experimental base to these results was massive with research conducted on no fewer than 949 individuals with participants consisting of 521 females and 428 males aged between 8 and 22. The sample size makes this one of the largest ever conducted scrutinising the “connectomes” that link different parts of the brain, with a special brain-scanning technique (“diffusion tensor imaging”) measuring the flow of water along a nerve pathway.

Interestingly, the research found that the brain differences between the sexes only became apparent after adolescence, suggesting perhaps a role for hormones. Moreover, while conceding that some individuals will differ, Verma makes the strength of the study’s conclusions clear by saying that the differences are “hard-wired” and illustrative of “fundamental sex differences in the architecture of the human brain.” The significance of these differences in the connectomes is of course a matter for debate; but according to the article’s authors, the greater single-hemisphere connectivity found in men’s cerebrum, and greater inter-hemisphere activity in their cerebellum gives men an efficient system for coordinated action including map reading. The reverse system of connectomes in women’s brains is hypothesised as facilitating the integration of analytic and intuitive thinking. Of course, we will have to wait for further studies to confirm these consequences.

Controversial territory

Talk of biological differences in cognitive behaviour tends to cause earth tremors in sociology and gender studies common rooms since they cause havoc with the belief that all gender differences are ’gendered’ through social rather than biological activity. Sandra Witelson, Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada, is happy to acknowledge differences in male and female brains since she believes that gender shapes male and female brains but she acknowledges that many will not want to accept this. As she aptly says: “There is a large segment of the population that wants to pretend this is not true,” something that she finds “astonishing” since “it is so obvious that there are sex differences in the brain and these are likely to be translated into some cognitive differences.”

Another Professor aware of the academic minefield that is discussion of gender differences is Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. He waited several years before writing his interesting book, The Essential Difference, since it was “politically sensitive” to discuss gender differences. If you look at the website of another academic, Helen Haste, Professor of Psychology at the University of Bath, you can glean a sense of the range of opinions in this whole area since Helen Haste takes the view that “… beliefs about sex difference served the needs of a patriarchal society, and were largely illusory distortions.” In her opinion:

The duality of gender maps on to the much deeper cultural metaphor of dualism which permeates Western thinking, and both reinforces it and is reinforced by it. To challenge distorting stereotypes of gender requires challenging the underlying cultural metaphor of dualism.

Professor Haste’s views — appearing on a website with a patterned pink-mauve background! — are at polar odds with those of Professor Baron-Cohen, Witelson and Brizendine but consistent with those of a significant proportion of other academics. Melissa Hines, previously mentioned Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University and author of Brain Gender, is concerned about the dangers of making assumptions about gender differences, something she regards as “stereotyping”. She expresses concerns at some of the links described by Brizendine and concern that people will use the information “to indicate that all our stereotyping of males and females are biologically innate.” She prefers to emphasise the extent to which “the brain is changeable; it changes all the time” (Midgley, 2006). In fact, the changing nature of the brain is a shared focus of both Professor Hines and Dr Brizendine since the latter points out that biology is just the starting point, with experience also shaping our brains. A 2013 study published in the journal Sex Roles by Reilly and Neumann bears this out since it found a link between spatial ability and men and women’s identification with concepts of masculinity.

This interactive impact of biology and experience is all-important; and in 2001, as mentioned earlier, I co-authored an article with Andrew Colman, Professor of Psychology at Leicester University in which we touched on these issues. We were presenting our findings on male and female preferences for male and female-designed Christmas cards and, in explaining the strong evidence for ’own-sex preference’, we argued that a cultural explanation may have its uses but that it merely pushes the problem back a step. An explanation is still needed as to why toys and other cultural objects tend to be gender-typed and why culture may have encouraged men to prefer functionality over aesthetics. Our conclusion was that an approach that embraced the importance of experience and biology, nature and nurture, offered the best way forward.

This way of thinking led Eleanor Maccoby, Stanford University Professor Emeritus of Psychology, and author of The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together, to argue that environmental conditions can impact behaviour directly as well as indirectly by altering biological processes. As she puts it, “Nature and nurture are jointly involved in everything human beings do” (ibid, p. 89). Meanwhile, Leslie Brody, Psychology Professor at Boston University, has progressed the debate in her fascinating book, Gender, Emotion and the Family (1999), where she explores ways in which males and females express emotions in families. She discusses how certain aggressive or dominant behaviours (e.g. winning a competition) can actually trigger a rise in testosterone levels showing how social processes can influence biology through adjustments in hormone levels. Of course the ultimate example of the way human behaviour has shaped biology is evolution theory; and in the next section, we explore exciting new thinking on the way that evolutionary pressures have shaped our visual-spatial abilities.


One view is that men and women’s visual-spatial skills emerged as a result of a division of labour in prehistoric society in which women gathered food, constructed the homes, reared the children and ensured the coherence of the group, while men tracked and targeted moving prey against a distant horizon.

The prehistoric period we are referring to spanned 1.7 million years from the oldest part of the Stone Age (the Lower Palaeolithic) to the end of the Pleistocene epoch about 10,000 years ago. At that point, environmental pressures from the last Ice Age brought an end to the hunting/gathering lifestyle and encouraged a move to a more stationary way of life. Until then, and for much of human evolution, men and women’s vision evolved to deal with the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.

Such, anyway, is the theory of several prominent academics. The sex differences in brain connectomes, for example, discussed earlier, has come to be called the hunter versus gatherer divide by two of the study’s main authors, the husband-wife team of Raquel and Ruben Gur. Then there is the work of David Geary, Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia and author of the definitive book on cognitive sex differences, now in its second edition, Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences. Published by the American Psychological Association, this explains cognitive differences as evolved reactions to evolutionary pressures on men and women. This theory is shared by Irwin Silverman, Professor of Psychology at York University, Canada, and Marion Eals whose work on object and memory location we touched on earlier. Remember how women can trace the matching sock much more easily than men? Arguably, these behaviours are rooted in a much earlier period of human existence when women were spending substantial periods gathering food and men were out hunting.

Hunter skills

Professor Silverman has written extensively on the range of skills that would have assisted the successful hunter, and in an article written in 2007, he expanded on the evidence for his theory. Meanwhile, in the same year, an article appeared linking these hunting skills to male-typical design features such as linearity, lack of colour, three-dimensionality and focus on movement. This broke new ground and the authors were myself, Dr Nick Neave, Reader in Psychology at Northumbria University, and his colleague, Dr Colin Hamilton.

Remember the earlier cases of difference? Men’s adverts on eBay contained fewer colours than the women’s and since much of a hunter’s task involves focusing on a distant horizon (where objects look dark) colour vision is not needed. Instead, colour blindness is at a premium since it helps see past camouflage and this may be an explanation for the high proportion of men with this condition. The lower priority given to colour may also be a factor in men’s privileging of form over colour.

Then we saw how men’s chocolate boxes were more three-dimensional in shape than the women’s, linked perhaps to men’s superior 3-D vision. In evolutionary terms, good 3-D vision served a number of functions. It helped hunters with route learning (they need to travel big distances so need accurate directional orientation), helped with calculating the distance of faraway objects, and also helped with targeting prey. It is strange to think that we can see a legacy of these vital skills lies in the contours of a chocolate box!

You may recall also our earlier discussions concerning men’s tolerance of visual dissonance? We considered how male-designed buildings and structures in London and San Francisco showed a high tolerance of dissonance and suggested that these structures illustrated men’s greater field independence. This is the ability to perceive stimuli independently of its environment and this trait would, like colour blindness, have helped hunters isolate prey from its environment. It is a somewhat chilling thought that men’s colour blindness sharpened their killing skills, but then the same could be said of the whole panoply of male visuospatial skills.

Take men’s penchant for straight lines for example. You probably remember the case of the doctor who spoke of his fondness for squares and rectangles, or the student who repeated the straight-sided octagon shape even when instructed to create something with rounded sides. This apparent obsession with straight lines could well be a hangover from a repeated focus on the distant horizon where things look straight.

Moreover, you may remember men’s passion for simplicity and unadorned surfaces — whether it is Professor Maeda’s ’Laws of Simplicity’, Jakob Nielsen’s rules for web usability or the doctor who talked of his preference for plain surfaces — and these preferences could also have their roots in a prehistoric lifestyle in which men’s role as hunters forced them to target prey against a distant horizon where detail and bright colours could not be seen.

Meanwhile, women’s prehistoric experience as foragers and childminders left a rather different imprint. It is to this that we will now turn.

Gatherer skills

You probably remember that women advertisers on eBay used more colours than men, and this too could have a prehistoric origin since excellent colour vision would be needed for foraging and locating food sources within complex arrays of vegetation across several growing seasons. In fact, the human ability to perceive colour is thought to have evolved 35 million years ago as a way of increasing opportunities for rooting out fruit and leaves for food. The knowledge that a large proportion of men rather than women (8% as against ½%) are colour-blind and that the use of a fourth colour pigment (’tetrachromat’ skills) is the preserve of women points to the fact that colour perception and therefore foraging were concentrated in the hands of women.

If you think about it, this is entirely logical. Foraging would demand good colour vision but would also call on the ability to recognise and recall the details and location of objects. In fact, women’s superior skills in these areas have been amply demonstrated by researchers. Silverman and Eals, for example, demonstrated women’s superior abilities in object location and memory, and Dr Nick Neave and his colleagues at Northumbria University in the UK went further and tested men and women’s memory of ecologically valid stimuli such as plants. They demonstrated in a very convincing way that women could locate plants more quickly and accurately than men, and associated women’s strong object location memory with foraging for berries. Maybe women’s adaptation to picking small rounded objects is a factor in women’s fondness for detail and their love affair with polka dots in particular?

So exciting were Nick Neave’s findings that I took a four hour train journey up to Northumbria to meet him and his colleague, Dr Colin Hamilton. Out of this visit came the article that we co-authored exploring the legacy of evolution on male and female design aesthetics. When discussing colour, we noted that women’s colour vision was adapted not only to foraging but to caring for babies. Remember how the researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne found a female preference for pinks? Well, the female heightened sensitivity to pink made it possible for women of light-skinned races to pick up on changes in skin colour and, through that, changes in temperature and mood. This sensitivity to colour would also have enabled them to gauge the moods of others in the encampment, a vital skill when men were absent for long periods hunting.

As well as colour, the article also discussed women’s penchant for round shapes — remember how all the women’s chocolate designs were rounded — and how this ensured female bonding with vulnerable and sometimes screaming children. In fact, predisposing women to rounded shapes could have had an evolutionary function, especially since the famous zoologist Nikolaas Tinbergen noticed that the faces of all mammalian young have rounded, appealing faces.

Of course, you must bear in mind that the division of labour which operated over millennia of hunter-gatherer activity is probably different from the division of labour that operated subsequently in more settled, agrarian periods. In hunter-gatherer days, according to anthropologist Robert Briffault, women’s responsibilities included painting, pottery and house building as well as foraging and childcare. The long list shows that quoting this research is not to advocate a return to the ghetto of child rearing and the kitchen since women in prehistoric times were the designers and architects as well as childcare experts! In point of fact, authors Professor Sherwood Washburn and Ruth Moore argued, in their book Ape into Man (1974), that human biology has evolved as an adaptive mechanism to conditions that have largely ceased to exist. This means that we live with the biological legacy of an older division of labour and see it reflected in the visual work men and women produce. The gatherer way of life can be seen reflected in rounded shapes, detail, static forms, colourfulness and two-dimensional forms, while the hunter lifestyle can be discerned in linear and 3-D shapes, dark and sparse use of colours, lack of detail and interest in moving forms.


Hunter and gatherer way of seeing

A note of caution is called for. Not all scholars agree with Silverman’s Hunter-Gatherer hypothesis. For example, Diane Halpern, Professor of Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, is one with doubts; but a number of scholars are of a like mind, and for good reason. In my opinion, it is a model worth considering as we wait for new research to come to light.

Meanwhile, it is time to put scientific theory to one side and explore the implications of our different ways of seeing for the world around us. As we move into the second part of the book, we draw on the findings discussed in this first part to see what this means for design, advertising, architecture, the Internet, fine art and relationships. In leaving the shores of science, with its justifiable concerns to make observations only from well-constructed samples, we allow ourselves the privilege of making observations from single examples and anecdote. Reader beware! As you turn the page, and move into the province of anecdote, you are replacing the safe shores of scientific endeavour in favour of observations that are not founded on irreproachable methodologies. This is not science but an informed exploration of the impact of the science on the world around us. I hope that you enjoy the ride into these new territories.