Field of Science

Plants are officially boring

ResearchBlogging.orgThis fantastic paper finally proves that plants are boring and animals are exciting. At least in the eyes of men.

Psychology and botany students took the plant blindness test, in which they were shown fourteen images of plants and fourteen images of animals of equal nameability, and then later asked to recall what those plants and animals were.

As you can see in this graph, the students were able to recall more animals than plants. It didn't matter if they students of botany or not, but there was a significant difference between male and females. Females were way better at recalling plants than males were, but the effect seems to be explained primarily by the substandard ability of males to recall plants compared to females, in addition to being slightly better at recalling animals than females.

The study included 124 introductory psychology students (58 female and 66 male) and 203 non-major botany students (90 female and 113 male).

This being a paper in a journal of education, the authors conclude that teachers should put more emphasis on naming plants in college:
To help identify which images are most helpful for instruction about plants, more teachers need to ask students which plants they know by name at the beginning of semester, and which examples they remember from class at the end of the semester. Teachers also need to be aware that there is a potential for gender differences in the recall of examples they use in class, particularly for cut flowers and carnivorous plants. Most importantly, biology teachers need to realise that students are coming to class with an inherent disparity in their plant and animal knowledge, and they need assistance to consciously attend to the green side of life in a world full of distracting animals.
However, I would be more interested in a conclusion along the lines of how human males and females are naturally differently attuned to recognizing animals than plants. One hypothesis could be that during some period of our evolutionary past when differences in the male and female brains evolved, males were hunters and females were gatherers, and thus had different priorities. It's a hypothesis, nothing more.

Also, take a look at the individual plants that were presented and how well females and males recalled each:

I have highlighted in red those plants females remembered at least 20% more often than males, and in blue the same for males. Most striking here is that males are so much worse at remembering flowers (rose, daisy, and carnation). Perhaps women should start giving men venus fly traps on Valentine's Day. Or carrots.


Elisabeth E Schussler and Lynn A Olzak (2008). It’s not easy being green: student recall of plant and animal images Journal of Biological Education, 42 (3), 112-118


  1. Ah well, you see. This can all be explained in terms of evolutionary psychology. You see, women were the gatherers, so had to recognize plants. Whereas men were not, and so don't give a damn until they are served up on a plate. Ta-daa! Evo psych is easy :)

  2. He, that is what I said, actually, even though I was cautious to mention it is only a hypothesis.

  3. Heh yes, I skimmed down to the figure. Sorry :( Thing is, if it was to do with the hunter/gatherer thing then why is the difference only really apparent with flowers? More likely is that flowers have greater cultural salience for women than for men.

    I would find it difficult to tell the difference between a daisy and a carnation, so I'm not likely to recall which one it was that I saw!

  4. Surely we can come up with a hypothesis explaining why men are particularly bad at remembering flowers. Or why women are good at it. EIther will work.

    But, suppose it's cultural, then why? Why are they more important to women? I actually can't think of any good reason for that.

  5. Because flowers are pretty, visually attractive - the cultural role traditionally assigned to women. Arguably, there are some evolutionary dynamics involved here, but they're pretty remote.

    But who knows! The thing with evo psych is that it's so tempting to come up with 'just so' stories that are plausible, but are in fact laden with cultural preconceptions. In other words, to extrapolate from the data in order to reinforce cultural norms.

  6. Now here's a fun hypothesis. The two plants men remembered better were the one that eats things, hence is a kind of pseudo-animal, and the one that most resembles a penis. The plants the women remembered better were the ones that most resemble a vagina. Warm colors, crinkly edges, kind of thing. :D

  7. You would think men remembered the vagina flowers best, then...

  8. Nah, fixation on genitalia doesn't demonstrate sexual interest. Male sexuality is all about competition. You have to keep an eye on other fellows' carrots to know which ones your bunny rabbit might be most likely to go after.

  9. It's interesting (well, actually, it isn't) that the researchers--along with many, many other so-called 'education' researchers--take a kind of ridiculous nativist view of education: in this case, that plant blindness is 'just there'.

    Let me ask, How many of you have had at one point or another a stuffed ANIMAL by your side? How about a stuffed PLANT?

    Cultural practices are a confounding variable here. It doesn't really matter whether humans are naturally blah blah. Susie, born in 1990 (or 1950 or 1850), will have a relative difficulty recalling plant images because her culture does not place as great an emphasis on plant knowledge as it does on animal knowledge.



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