Originally written June 2009
One of the biggest non-debates out there is in regards to human psychology, and what is responsible for it. Is it nature or nurture? No serious scientist thinks that you can explain all of human psychology with just one of these explanations. You need both, since they have each had a role in shaping who we are. The trick is to try and tease out which aspects of ourselves are the result of which, and to what extent.
Unfortunately, there are lots of people who often want to only attribute human psychology solely to either nature or nurture. Some post modernists and feminists make the mistake of trying to attribute all aspects of human nature to the environment someone was raised in (nurture), while another group often attributes everything to the nature side. These people are evolutionary psychologists.
Evolutionary psychologists (EPs) are given the task of explaining why human psychology is the way it is. Unfortunately, they are often a little too hasty, and attempt to find evolutionary reasons (nature) for our behavior, when a nurture explanation would be a much better explanation. For example, some EPs will try to explain something like color preference. The EPs see that women tend to like the color pink, so they come up with a reason that explains why women would like the color pink. Their answer is that women like pink, because back in hunter/gatherer societies, it would be advantageous to see red berries, and collect them.
Clever, very clever! But berries aren’t generally pink when they are ripe. They are red or blue. So that explanation, while clever, doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. It is more likely that pink has just become associated with femininity because of societal pressures, and nothing else. If blue was considered feminine, women probably like it too.
In order to tell if something is the result of nature (and not nurture), there is an easy test: cross cultural studies. If every culture has the same opinion on something, it is highly probable that the characteristic in question is the result of biology, rather than culture. Or more simply put, traits that transcend culture are the product of our biology.
If it turned out that women in every culture preferred the color pink, then the EPs would have something to go by. Until then, the evidence suggests that women’s preference of pink is completely a product of American culture, and has nothing to do with our evolutionary past.
Another one of these clever explanations is an attempt to explain why “gentlemen prefer blondes.” There have been several attempts to explain this, and scientists from other disciplines found it so ridiculous that one neurologist, V.S. Ramachandran, actually wrote a satirical paper, proposing an explanation.
Ramachandran argued that men prefer women with blonde hair, because blonde hair tends to go hand in hand with fair skin, which is a sign of youth, which is one of the key factors in beauty. However, Ramachandran later revealed that the “article was a hoax, designed to reveal evolutionary psychologists' gullibility.”
While his paper wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, EPs didn’t realize it was a joke, and bought onto it. Two scientists (one neuroscientist and one EP) even referenced Ramachandran’s paper in their books!*
In the first example, it seems obvious that the EPs prematurely assumed that color preference is a result of nature, and didn’t bother to check if that was true or not. The same thing goes for EPs who assume that men prefer women with blonde hair. Instead of questioning if this was true or not, they assumed it was, and went searching for an explanation. Unfortunately for the EPs, men do not prefer blondes, and there are multiple lines of evidence to support this.
I first was tipped on to this, when I looked at my own personal preference. Over the course of my life, only 16% of girls that I have liked have been blonde, only 12% of the girls I have kissed have been blonde, and 0% of girls I have dated have been blonde. But I am just one person, so those stats don’t mean much. Men might still prefer blondes, and I could just be the outlier on the bell curve.
I then asked my friends what they prefer. Overwhelmingly, guys I have asked claim to prefer brunettes. And as an interesting observation, if you happen to flip through a Victoria’s Secret catalog, (as I often do, hahaha) the majority of models are brunette (only 28% of the models in the particular catalog I looked in were blonde).**
Finally, for some legitimate scientific evidence: research from Florida State University has shown that men prefer women with long brown hair to anything else. Of the men polled, 46% preferred women with brown hair, 27% preferred black, 19% preferred blondes, and only 7% preferred redheads (if you are a redhead, don't be sad. Oddly, research shows that redhead women have more sex than brunettes or blondes.).
A few decades ago, men might have indeed preferred blondes. Though, this is probably because Marilyn Monroe, who was the dominant sex symbol at the time, had blonde hair. Since women realized that men found her incredibly attractive, they tried to copy her, which meant trying to be blonde.
As for right now, why would men prefer brunettes? This brings us back to the question of hair color preference being a result of nature or nurture, or a little of both. The first thing we can see is that blonde hair is not that common. It’s only seen in people with Northern European ancestry. The vast majority of the world’s women have dark hair. So it’s not likely that we would have evolved the attraction to blondes over brunettes in such a short amount of time.
Also, light skin is viewed as less attractive than darker skin (at least nowadays). But fair skin is a common trait of many young children. So if men preferred women with blonde hair, because it is a sign of youth, they should also like women with light skin. But this isn’t something we see at all.
So do gentlemen prefer blondes? Apparently not. There is no biological reason that men would. And the evidence seems to suggest the opposite-- that men prefer brunettes. As for if this preference is based on nature or nurture… I don’t know. Like many things, it’s probably a combination of both.
*"Survival of the Prettiest" by Nancy Etcoff and "Incognito" by David Eagleman.
**I looked at a Victoria’s Secret magazine and counted how many of the pictures featured blonde or brunette girls. There were 191 brunettes and 68 blondes. Though, for the blondes, I also counted brunettes who had a lot of blonde highlights.