Why Are We So Obsessed With Millennial Pink? There’s A Scientific Explanation For Everything

Share

Millennial pink, otherwise known as blush or delicate pink, is the trend that simply will not go away. It's everywhere from Instagram-ready restaurants, to couches, clothing and advertising for all genders. It's driving fashion editors up the wall. And it's a glorious time for anybody who reveled in shades of pink in their childhood and is now discovering that the adult world pairs them with bronze bookends and crystal decanters and deems them sophisticated. But the story behind why we're so obsessed with millennial pink is deeper than simply a passing trend. It involves everything from gender roles to ideas of beauty, evolution, and science.

Figuring out the science behind a color and its response by viewers is trickier than it seems. Our judgments about color aren't just about personal preference; they're also about your associations, your aesthetic ideas, and your cultural values. We "read" colors vastly differently depending on our cultural standpoint; while white in Western cultures is the color of brides, for instance, in Indian Hinduism it's the color worn by widows, and in Judaism and Islam it's the color worn on religious festivals as a symbol of purity. Millennial pink's success shows up in the cultural artifacts of our time: what we consume, what we watch, what we observe and demand. So where has this phenomenon come from, scientifically speaking?

Let's get a basic assumption out of the way first: There doesn't seem to be any innate, evolutionary propensity for women to like pink more than men. A study in 2007 claimed that women seemed to gravitate towards more towards pink colors for evolutionary reasons (the researchers suggested that women might have evolved to detect flushed faces or ripe red berries, for instance), but research critic Dr. Ben Goldacre and other scientists pointed out that the study only really proved that pink-based bias runs very deep. (The study also involved Chinese subjects to test for cultural bias, but Goldacre notes that their preference for pinky-red colors is likely explained by the fact that Chinese culture privileges red as a very lucky color.) Namibian women, in another study in 2013, were also shown not to have any preference for pinky-red tones, so that argument looks pretty insubstantial.

It can be tempting to look at human evolution more broadly for the answer on pink's appeal. Association is a powerful thing when it comes to color. Some pink things in the natural world, from flowers to watermelon to dragonfruit, are either nutritious or unthreatening, unlike, say, giant orange spiders. However, we can't take this analogy too far, because pink can also signal natural danger: snakes, toxic frogs and even scorpions can be emblazoned with pink shades from the delicate to the shocking. Blush pinks can also signal infection and disease in light-skinned people (think: fever). It's not a safe hypothesis to say we think of pink as agreeable because we might have evolved to think of it as a positive color.  

Ian Dooley/Unsplash

The most famous study on the human reaction to pink focuses on a color that's quite similar to millennial pink: a shade called Baker-Miller Pink. The color was created by the biosocial researcher Alexander Schauss in the late 1970s by mixing red and white paint, and tested at naval facilities to see if it calmed down prisoners in cells painted with its delicate hue. Schauss's experiments showed that it lowered blood pressure and aggressive behavior, as did other experiments in the 1980s, but other studies, most famously one in 1988, found that it seemed to have no real effect on human behavior at all. The theory surfaced again when Kendall Jenner revealed she painted her wall Baker-Miller Pink to "calm" her, but contemporary scientists thought Jenner was wrong. "In terms of solid science experimentation, [the Baker-Miller experimental data] also seems quite old: they don’t return striking results, and seemed to have a very small marginal effect" on human behavior, psychologist and color specialist John Maule told The Guardian.

There is, however, evidence that we do seem to view pinks in a positive light in some situations, likely as a result of cultural programming. Pink, as we all know, is tied in Western culture to femininity and female qualities (a relatively recent invention, as it happens; in 1918. the Ladies Home Journal wrote that "the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl"). Because we tend to associate all things "feminine" with the concept of softness and gentleness, it's not too much of a stretch to think that positive reactions to pink are drawn from the same deep-rooted cultural ideas, or simply a preference for bright colors. A 2002 study, for instance, found that people in Sweden were 12 percent more likely to fill in a survey if it was printed on pink paper. It's worth remembering, though, that pink surrounds made no apparent difference to the behavior of prisoners, so there appear to be distinct limits to how color affects our behavior and preferences.

As for the enduring popularity of millennial pink, it's also worth remembering that, for the millennial generation, little is positive at the moment. American politics is a mess, millennial debt is climbing, the newspapers are filled with stories of sexual harassment, and a woman came closer than anybody else to the White House before being beaten by someone with no experience. It's not surprising that a color associated with innocence and uncomplicated childhood has held a strong position in the public consciousness for so long. A report in 2015 found that there's a direct tie between millennial fondness for the markers of childhood nostalgia (unicorns, milkshakes, cartoons), and their restricted access to the markers of "adulthood" (a lifelong job, owning property, pensions and life insurance). Millennials are increasingly redefining what it means to be a grown-up in a seriously troubled world. Sometimes, we all want to be soothed — and what better way to do that than looking at Instagrams of a mid-century modern pink velvet settee.