Can hair color make other people act dumb?

A study suggests that just the sight of blond women can "make men less clever."


Catherine Price
November 20, 2007 11:42PM (UTC)

Everyone knows the stereotype of the dumb blonde. But according to an article in the Telegraph, a study has demonstrated that blondes can make other people dumb.

Let me explain. Researchers at the University of Paris X-Nanterre showed men photos of women with different hair colors and then had the men take "general knowledge tests" to see if their performance would be affected by the hair color in the photographs. The men performed worse after looking at the photographs of the blondes, which means, the researchers concluded, that the men were "subconsciously copying the stereotype of the 'blonde bimbo'" (to quote the Telegraph).

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One of the authors of the study, Thierry Meyer, told the Telegraph that "this proves that people confronted with stereotypes generally behave in line with them."

His statement sounds generally reasonable -- stereotypes probably do affect the way we act. But the article's headline, "Blonde Women Make Men Less Clever," is misleading. (Obviously, Meyer had nothing to do with it -- it's from the Telegraph.) The title makes it sound like blondes are slipping something into men's drinks, when in fact the study was trying to examine the effect that stereotypes have on performance. So it's not the women that are having an effect, it's their hair color -- what's more, it's not the hair color itself, but men's perception of its related stereotype that makes a difference.

As for the researchers' argument itself, on a certain level, I think it makes sense -- as the article points out, other research has shown, for example, that people walk and talk more slowly in front of the elderly. For better or (more likely) worse, we do respond to stereotypes. But the stereotype of the "dumb blonde" has a lot more to it than just the color of the woman's hair. It has to do with sexiness. In other words, if I tell you to imagine a "dumb blonde," you're more likely to conjure up an image of a Paris Hilton look-alike than of, say, Ann Coulter. (Some readers will probably assert that she's also a dumb blonde, but I don't think that perception has much to do with her hair color.)

I haven't been able to find pictures from the study online, but I'm interested in finding out what the women looked like. If they were anything similar to the photo running in the Telegraph of three young blonde women in bikinis on the beach, then I don't find it too surprising that people would have conjured up a stereotype. But I find it harder to believe that people would respond as strongly to photographs of, say, a blonde lawyer in a suit -- i.e. someone who looked professional and was not showing much skin. I'm not trying to deny that the dumb blonde stereotype exists, but I do think it involves more than just hair color.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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