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Why do I see a different color shoe?

Have you ever gone shopping for a new pair of shoes and thought you were buying, say, navy blue shoes, only to get them home and realize they look totally different – maybe more purple or gray than blue? If this has happened to you, you’re not alone. Many people have experienced looking at the same shoe and seeing slightly different colors. In this article, we’ll explore some of the fascinating reasons why this phenomenon occurs.

How color vision works

To understand why we sometimes perceive colors differently, it helps to first understand a bit about how color vision works. The retina at the back of our eyes contains special photoreceptor cells called cones. There are three types of cones that are each sensitive to different wavelengths of light – short (blue), medium (green), and long (red). It’s the combination and ratio of stimulation of these three cone types that allows us to perceive the vast array of colors we see.

However, the distribution of cone types varies quite a bit among individuals. Some people have more of one type of cone versus another. This means the way the cones are stimulated by a given wavelength of light can differ among people, impacting how we each perceive color.

Genetic differences

In addition to differences in cone distributions, people can also have genetic variations that affect cone function. Certain gene variants lead to shifts in the wavelength sensitivity of cones. So two people with the “same” set of cones may still interpret incoming light somewhat differently.

Women are also more likely to carry an extra type of color receptor compared to men, which gives them enhanced reddish-green perception. These gender differences likely evolved from the traditional division of labor – males historically hunted (discerning muddy greens and browns) while females gathered (identifying ripe reds and oranges).

Environmental factors

Aside from physiological and genetic differences, our perception of color can also be influenced by external factors:

  • Surrounding colors: The presence of nearby colors can impact how we interpret what we’re looking at. For example, a gray shoe may take on a slightly purple tone when placed next to a violet shoe.
  • Lighting: The spectral composition, intensity, and direction of lighting affects what wavelengths reach our eyes, which in turn affects how we perceive color.
  • Background: A colored object against a white background generally looks more saturated compared to the same object against a black background.
  • Reflectance: Some materials like velvet absorb a lot of light while shiny or iridescent materials reflect it differently. This can alter color perception.

Age-related changes

As we age, the lens and cornea of our eyes gradually yellow, which leads to a shift toward the blue end of the color spectrum. Older adults may therefore have trouble distinguishing purples and blues. The cones also deteriorate over time, causing haziness in color perception.

In addition, cataracts – which many elderly develop – block certain wavelengths of light, making it more difficult to perceive subtle color differences. All these age-related changes make it more likely that older individuals will interpret colors differently than younger folks.

Color blindness

About 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women have some degree of color vision deficiency. The most common form is red-green color blindness, where people mix up those two colors. So for a color blind man, a shoe appearing navy blue to most people may actually look greenish to him. Other types of color blindness including blue-yellow and complete color blindness can also radically alter color perception.

Culture and language

Different cultures and languages also categorize color in their own unique way. For instance, Japanese has traditionally had distinct words for light blue and dark blue while English makes no such distinction. Researchers have found that this actually leads native Japanese speakers to perceive light and dark blues as more different compared to English speakers.

This effect of language on color perception likely extends to other shades like purples, greens, and browns. So someone from a culture that labels colors more specifically may notice subtle distinctions that others would overlook. This could result in discrepancies when naming a color.

Dress study

A famous example that went viral in 2015 clearly demonstrated how greatly color perception can vary among people. When this photograph of a dress was posted online, some people insisted the dress was white and gold while others saw blue and black:

White and gold or blue and black dress

This divide even occurred within families and among friends who saw the image under the same lighting conditions. While individual differences in color vision explained some of the incompatible perceptions, linguistics also played a role. Those who perceived the dress as white and gold were more likely to use the words “white” and “gold” in their native language, while those seeing blue and black used terms like “blue” and “black” more frequently.


As illustrated above, a number of different factors can influence how we each visually process color. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Cone distribution and genetics impact color sensitivity.
  • Age-related changes in the eye affect color perception.
  • Color blindness also radically alters color interpretation.
  • Cultural and language background shape color categorization.
  • Context like surrounding colors and lighting influence processing.

So the next time you’re out shopping with a friend and disagree on whether a sweater is emerald or forest green, remember it’s likely not that one of you needs glasses – your eyes may just process color differently! If you’re the one making important color decisions, get input from multiple sources to ensure colors appeal to a wide range of perceptions.

Gender Differences in Color Perception

Gender Color Perception Ability
Females Enhanced perception of reddish-green hues
Males Superior perception of muddy greens and browns

As shown in the table, women tend to have increased sensitivity to reddish-green hues, while men are generally better at discerning muted greens and browns. These differences likely evolved based on gender divisions of labor in human ancestry.

So there you have it – a comprehensive overview explaining the multitude of factors that can lead different people to perceive the color of a shoe (or any object) somewhat differently. Let me know if you need any clarification or have additional questions!