Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgi-ff9162f708a31472eab9890171b97304-alexander1.jpgWhen Nora was born, Jim was just 19 months old, and still unable to communicate other than with the most basic words (ba-ba, da-da, na-na). But we could tell right away that while he liked his new sister, he was a little jealous when our attention was focused on her needs, instead of his, as they had been his entire life. So we decided to get him a little baby doll, a boy, which he called “Seth.” When we fed Nora, Jim fed Seth. When we changed her diapers, he changed Seth, and so on.

This was an effective distraction for a few months, but eventually Jim decided it was too much work caring for Seth and went on to other distractions, like emptying all the kitchen cupboards or running around the apartment like a mad banshee. He kept Seth for many years, but when he was around ten years old he must have decided that it was embarrassing to own a doll because we found it hidden in the deepest recess of his closet.

Psychologists have wondered for decades whether boys preferred “boy toys” because of a natural inclination to like hard, mechanically-oriented things, or simply because those around them encouraged them to play with the toys they felt were appropriate for boys. Similarly, do girls “naturally” like to play with dolls, or are they encouraged to do so by their parents? While researchers have found that kids around 18 months and older do prefer the traditional gender-specific toys, research for younger kids (presumably less-influenced by their parents) is less clear-cut.

A 2000 study showed babies between 3 and 18 months old pictures of toys traditionally preferred by each gender and measured how long boys and girls looked at the pictures. The boys as young as 9 months old seemed to prefer toys like balls, blocks, and cars to dolls, dustpans, and ovens. However, even the 18-month-old girls showed no apparent preference for any type of toy based on how long they looked at them.

One problem with this sort of study is that it’s not very precise: is the baby really focusing on a particular toy, or just pointing its head in that general direction?

New technology allows researchers to record the precise eye movements of infants, and a team led by Gerianne Alexander designed a simple study to see if 6-month-olds really showed sex differences in toy preference. Thirty babies were placed in a car seat in front of a small puppet stage, whose curtain was opened for ten seconds to reveal two toys: a pink doll and a blue truck. The curtain was lowered, the position of the toys was switched, and it was raised again for another ten seconds, so each toy was seen in each spot for the same amount of time. Then the number of looks at each toy was carefully tallied by gender. Here are the results:

i-ec34c697681fe2385037845e68bfcbef-alexander2.gif

While both boys and girls fixated more on the doll than the truck, girls looked at the doll significantly more than the boys did, and looked at the truck significantly less than the boys. The researchers say babies this young don’t have the motor skills to actually play with these toys, so the result must be due to different visual preferences in boys and girls. Arguably, babies at this age don’t have any opinion about gender roles and don’t even particularly distinguish between genders, so social influences must not be responsible for this difference.

Personally, I’m not so sure I’m convinced by the researchers’ logic. Little girls are dressed in pink and boys are dressed in blue from a very young age. Girls are given dolls and boys are given trucks, so whether the babies are conscious of gender roles or are able to physically interact with these toys, they have been exposed to them more or less based on their gender. But whether or not you agree with the analysis, it’s intriguing to learn that at an average age of 6 months, girls already appear to be more interested in dolls and less interested in trucks than boys are.

Alexander, G., Wilcox, T., & Woods, R. (2008). Sex Differences in Infants’ Visual Interest in Toys Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38 (3), 427-433 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-008-9430-1

Comments

  1. #1 Noadi
    June 10, 2009

    One thing is the color difference. Boys are more likely by far to have color perception problems and blue is going to attract the eye more than pink in that case. Did they do anything to account for this potential problem?

  2. #2 Lilian Nattel
    June 10, 2009

    I think it would have been more persuasive if the colour effect had been accounted for both in terms of different colour perceptions and also socialized colour perceptions. Same colour doll and truck (pink, yellow, blue) and different colours (pink truck, blue doll, pink doll, blue truck, etc) would have provided more information.

  3. #3 Nestor L Lopez-Duran
    June 10, 2009

    Hi Dave, in addition to color, there is a major categorical (object vs. human-like object) difference between these toys. The girls may not be preferentially looking at a doll because they are more likely to fixate on human forms. Nestor.

  4. #4 Nestor L Lopez-Duran
    June 10, 2009

    oops, what I meant was that girls may not be preferentially looking at a doll because they are “girl toys” but because girls may be more likely to attend to human forms.

    Nestor.

  5. #5 Avolition
    June 10, 2009

    I’m wondering if there have been studies where kids of different sexes were put in the same room with the same kinds of toys. This study would give more than enough proof about kids and gender roles.

  6. #6 Lab Rat
    June 10, 2009

    One of the most boring lectures I ever attended was by Simon Baron Cohen, talking about the difference between ‘female’ and ‘male’ ways of thinking. In between all the dodgy correlations and statements of the Blindingly Obvious the only thing I really picked up was that apperently only 52% of females had a female brain, and around 58% of males had a male brain. or something like that.

    I’ve never bee able to trust gender-related studies sinse to be honest. And as far as this study goes, I wouldn’t call a sample size of thirty particularly conclusive.

  7. #7 Christopher Mims
    June 10, 2009

    I agree with your analysis in the last graf – unless the researchers are making the case that boy babies are biologically more predisposed to fixate on non-humanoid objects (now wouldn’t that be an interesting study? give them geometric shapes or whatnot…) they must be cueing off of parental training / reactions.

  8. #8 Zach Miller
    June 10, 2009

    We need a doll that transforms into a truck to satisfy both sexes. :-)

  9. #9 DinaFelice
    June 10, 2009

    What I find most interesting about these results is the gender with the difference.

    Girls are much more likely to be allowed/encouraged to play with trucks than boys are allowed/encouraged to play with dolls (i.e. parents with non-traditional gender views are more likely to encourage their daughters to play with trucks than they encourage their sons to play with dolls while parents with traditional gender views are more likely to actively discourage boys from playing with dolls than they are to object to girls playing with trucks). Therefore, if these differences are more culturally based, I would have expected boys to have a greater difference in their preferences while girls would have shown about equal interest in both toys.

    I also seem to recall a study that showed that infant girls paid more attention to faces than infant boys did…maybe the preferential attention to the doll is an outgrowth of that.

  10. #10 Josh
    June 10, 2009

    Was I the only one who was suckered by the ambiguity in the title of this post? I was thinking this study showed that babies were interested in sex toys, because for an infant ‘toys based on sex’ are certainly ‘different’.

    In other words, the modifer ‘based on sex’ was, I thought, modifying the word ‘toys’ rather than ‘prefer’.

  11. #11 CC
    June 10, 2009

    I’ve certainly encountered the assertion — whether backed by research or not — that people interact with little girls more than little boys i.e. eye contact, facial expressions, talking to them etc. etc. So if little girls do prefer human faces and humanoid toys, (and if the assertion is true…) that could in part be a result of them being treated differently by receiving more social interaction. On the other hand, people might prefer interacting with little girls because they respond better due to being more interested in faces and people… (And presumably many other possible hypotheses could be proposed, no doubt.)

  12. #12 Myrdek
    June 10, 2009

    The notion that there is only 2 sexes is already too simplified. It’s not like boys are born on one end of the spectrum and girls another.

  13. #13 Richard Simons
    June 10, 2009

    The same kind of differences have also been found for rhesus and vervet monkeys, so it is probably not a cultural effect.

  14. #14 Donna B.
    June 11, 2009

    Males and females are different.

    Does anyone get upset that male and female dogs have different temperaments? Cats? Bovines? Fowl?

  15. #15 Dunc
    June 11, 2009

    Arguably, babies at this age don’t have any opinion about gender roles and don’t even particularly distinguish between genders, so social influences must not be responsible for this difference.

    What? Clever Hans didn’t have any opinion about arithmetic, but he was able to respond to cues from those who did.

  16. #16 washboardalex
    June 11, 2009

    The fact that it’s a truck and not something “naturally selected” makes me think it’s not inherited. How would a babie know that a truck is a “guy” thing unless it saw some dudes driving it? Does it even know what a truck is?

  17. #17 washboardalex
    June 11, 2009

    also, the results for the guys are basically 50/50 so…yeah. I’m calling a highly dubious result.

  18. #18 Katie Cunningham
    June 11, 2009

    > We need a doll that transforms into a truck to satisfy both sexes. :-)

    It’s called a transformer ;)

  19. #19 Max
    June 11, 2009

    Does the study account for the part where different cultures have different toys? The doll vs. truck “debate” may be some kind of relevant in more developed parts of the world (which, due to colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism, are predominately “white”), but how does it stack up in other cultures? Are Pakistani children or Nigerian children or Australian Aboriginal children going to show the same results? Why or why not?

    Psychologists have a bad habit of forgetting that the world isn’t comprised of white middle class U.S. citizens, or that sociology exists. It’s kind of aggravating.

  20. #20 Max
    June 11, 2009

    Does the study account for the part where different cultures have different toys? The doll vs. truck “debate” may be some kind of relevant in more developed parts of the world (which, due to colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism, are predominately “white”), but how does it stack up in other cultures? Are Pakistani children or Nigerian children or Australian Aboriginal children going to show the same results? Why or why not?

    Psychologists have a bad habit of forgetting that the world isn’t comprised of white middle class U.S. citizens, or that sociology exists. It’s kind of aggravating.

  21. #21 Marc Fleury
    June 11, 2009

    parents with non-traditional gender views are more likely to encourage their daughters to play with trucks than they encourage their sons to play with dolls

    Really? I have not found that to be the case.

  22. #22 Carol
    June 11, 2009

    I’m so fed up with this type of study. I recently had this debate with a woman who raised several girls all of whom preferred to play with dolls, no matter what other toys she offered. She jumped to the conclusion that all girls really do prefer dolls. So I asked another friend who raised eight girls, and she complained that no matter what she did, she couldn’t interest any of them in dolls.

    I seriously think the doll/truck preference is like right- and left-handedness. Children have strengths, weaknesses and preferences. If they were dogs, we’d selectively breed them to create groups who are really, really, especially good at different things, and take advantage of that to the betterment of society as a whole. But instead we’re people, and we have to try to find some justification for “gender roles.” Give me a break already. I want to see studies to find out how much, if any, harm is done when children are not allowed to play with their preference, or made to feel inferior or bad because of their preference.

  23. #23 outlier
    June 11, 2009

    Don’t the doll/truck results for girls constitute non-independent variables? Which is to say, if girls did spend more time looking at the doll, they would necessarily spend less looking at the truck (because of how this particular experiment was set up).

    So for girls, we can’t tell whether they actually prefer dolls(faces), or just find trucks really boring to look at.

  24. #24 Drekab
    June 11, 2009

    outlier,

    It’s ‘number of fixations’ not time spent, you’re discounting the time the babies spent staring into space.

  25. #25 kaberi
    June 12, 2009

    While reading this post, I kept thinking the same thing as Max said. The truck vs. doll debate may nor even exist in other parts of the world… How could the editors and reviewers of the journal let this study publish with such generalized statement about boys and girls and identity of toys!! In most other parts of the world or even in the USA (not among the white middle class), there are families who do not have the exact same child rearing method… by that I mean that boys and girls are not always dressed in pink or blue and the are exposed to gender neutral toys from early age.

  26. #26 ambivalent academic
    June 12, 2009

    Why aren’t there error bars on that graph? Quantified data presented without error bars should be treated as suspect.

  27. #27 ambivalent academic
    June 12, 2009

    Why aren’t there error bars on that graph? Quantified data presented without error bars should be treated as suspect.

    Also – another possible explanation for this result (assuming that the difference really is statistically significant) is that maybe girls are better at recognizing an abstracted human form at this age. I have no idea if there is further evidence to support this, but if girls are already keyed into interacting with other humans at an earlier stage, and can recognize a doll as a representation of the human form then maybe it has nothing to do with gender roles or colors.

    In any case, I don’t think that the authors can make any legitimate conclusions since they are already confounding their results with multiple variables (doll/truck and colors), and without the statistical analysis it doesn’t mean anything yet.

  28. #28 Dave Munger
    June 12, 2009

    Ambivalent academic: The point of this blog is not to do statistical analysis. If you’re interested in that, you should be reading the original research paper. The results are statistically significant, as I report in the original writeup. If you need more information, I suggest you go to the source.

  29. #29 Robert Rushing
    June 14, 2009

    A couple of thoughts:

    I agree that this study doesn’t appear to carry much weight—repeated with numerous variations on color, size and toy type, we might begin to see what the essential differences, if any, are. There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that male and female brains are generally different (although the commonalities vastly outweigh the differences), but we don’t have a very good handle on what the most prominent and widespread differences are yet, and what, if anything, they have in common. This study doesn’t appear to help much.

    As to toys, boys and girls generally have different playthings in most cultures, and have throughout history. The specifics vary, but are there generalizeable commonalities? Perhaps all those cultures at all those times were merely socializing their children to play with different toys, but now we have to address why there seems to be an innate need to differently socialize the two sexes.

  30. #30 jj mollo
    June 19, 2009

    Girls are different from boys. This is true. And they are different from what you “expect” them to be and what you encourage them to be. And they are different from each other. One of my daughters in early childhood perceived everything as a doll. She made little beds and tucked in her animals and trucks and pencils every night, covering them with little blankets of kleenex and kissing them goodnight. The second one didn’t care about dolls or trucks or anything else that much. She was only interested in socializing and making noise, oh, and making a mess. In spite of my best efforts, neither of them were interested in sports until much later.

  31. #31 Amanda
    June 24, 2009

    I was glad to see the “truck debate” in the comments… it seems like a complicated cultural item, where looking at a human form would seem much more intrinsic for an infant. It makes sense to me that the sexes found the truck the same amount of interesting. A human form is more recognizable — and I kind of interpreted the results here as saying the doll was recognized sooner probably for both sexes, and the boys weren’t interested in keeping gaze, where the girls kept their interest.

    To some commenters: If this study were more thorough, the results are significant and interesting to cogsci, not because it’s a test of whether boys and girls are different…it’s more about learning what’s interesting to look at for these infants, and what the statistical differences are in interest over the population of male and female infants. Those results could lead to all sorts of interesting postulations about why certain items are interesting for infants and why there’s a difference in interest between infant populations.