Children’s colour blindness is not a black and white issue

by Dr Brenda Todd, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, City University of London.

Originally published on the BPS Developmental Psychology Section blog spot, 26/04/2018 [here]


In the average classroom, two or more children will look into a box of coloured pencils and only be able to recognise four of the colours. That is because one in 12 boys and one in 200 girls are red-green colour blind. In many cases their colour blindness will go undiagnosed for years, and they will be seen as ‘slow’ by teachers and teased by schoolmates.

According to a review of this topic by Chan et al (2014), colour blind children might become socially withdrawn, and fall into dysfunctional coping strategies (such as guessing colours, or avoiding subjects that require normal colour vision) that can last throughout the lifespan. These maladaptive coping strategies may be exacerbated in an educational system where routine screening for colour blindness isn’t carried out in schools, and where the needs of colour blind children are often neglected in lessons and exams.

There are many situations, cited by Chan et al, in which colour blind children experience embarrassing difficulties, for example:

Maths: problems understanding colour-coded graphs and charts

Biology: unable to accurately read stained slides under microscope, identify plant species,

carry out dissections accurately, understand coloured diagrams

Physics: experience difficulty with coloured wiring, use of prisms, coloured diagrams

Chemistry: unable to read litmus paper accurately, identify colours of different chemical solutions, identify metals by colour of flame produced when burned

Sports and play: cannot differentiate team colours

Art class: unable to appreciate how colours are mixed, unable to use colour appropriately

School meals: deemed ‘fussy eaters’ because the colour of some foods appear to be unpalatable

As colour blind boys and grow up, the condition and the psychological impact it can impose on them, has the potential to diminish their quality of life as well as limit their choice of career (Barry et al, 2017).

Given that colour blindness has so many dimensions of potential concern to a large number of individuals, families and schools, you might think that taking action on colour blindness is a black and white issue. But if so, why aren’t more developmental psychologists working in this field? Perhaps, as Seager et al (2016) suggest, we currently suffer from another type of blindness, ‘male gender blindness’, which means that we tend not to notice when boys are having difficulties as much as we notice problems for girls. Perhaps we think that boys are better able to cope or are less likely to appreciate being helped – or that they are simply being disruptive.

Whether you agree with this explanation or not, I believe we need to take a fresh perspective on topics in psychology that are sensitive to gender differences, and consider how such differences might affect the children and adults who experience them. A greater awareness of the potential difficulties, and a school-based strategy to address them early in life, can open up opportunities to improve outcomes. Hopefully, the creation of a Male Psychology Section of the BPS – the national ballot is taking place in May – will enable us to turn our attention to some of the concerns which particularly affect the development of boys and can have lifelong consequences for them. Some would say this Section is long overdue, given that we have had a Psychology of Women Section since 1988, and the APA have had a Division for men’s psychology since 1995.


You can vote for a Male Psychology of the BPS between 7th May and 20th June.

Details are here



Dr Brenda Todd is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, City University of London. Brenda presented her research findings on gender differences in children’s toy preferences at the Male Psychology Conference in 2014, and has since published a meta-analysis and meta-regression on this topic [linked here]


Barry, J. A., Mollan, S., Burdon, M. A., Jenkins, M., & Denniston, A. K. (2017). Development and validation of a questionnaire assessing the quality of life impact of Colour Blindness (CBQoL). BMC ophthalmology, 17(1), 179.

Chan, X. B. V., Goh, S. M. S., & Tan, N. C. (2014). Subjects with colour vision deficiency in the community: what do primary care physicians need to know? Asia Pacific Family Medicine, 13(1), 10.

Seager MJ, Barry JA & Sullivan L (2016). Challenging male gender blindness: Why psychologists should be leading the way. Clinical Psychology Forum, 285, 35 – 40.




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