Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A pink truck is still a truck

When you walk into any baby store, it quickly becomes obvious that boys like blue trucks and girls like pink dolls. You might find a yellow pajama with a puppy on it, but that one is probably intended for the pregnant mom who doesn’t want to find out the sex of her baby but wants to buy a pajama. Many researchers have speculated on why boys and girls like different colors and different toys. There are three main theories out there. The first one, the “social learning” theory, suggests that children like certain toys and colors because they are socialized to like them: they like the toys their parents buy for them. The second theory, the “cognitive theory”, suggests that a child knows what gender he or she is, and is aware of the stereotypes, so he or she chooses accordingly. Finally, the “hormonal theory” suggests that sex differences in the prenatal hormone environment changes how the brain organizes itself and leads to female- or male-typed behaviours. For example, high levels of androgen (the male hormone) lead to brain masculinization and the choosing of trucks over dolls. While this may sound crazy, experiments have shown that female fetuses exposed to abnormally high androgen concentrations spend more time playing with masculine toys compared to regular girls. To make things even more complicated, studies have shown that some kinds of monkeys also show sex-specific toy preferences (and Daddy Monkey doesn’t shop at Wal-Mart, so there goes the “social learning” theory). So, is it already in your brain when you’re born, or do you learn to love blue trucks or pink dolls?

Researchers set out to shed some light on this question by studying 120 boys and girls aged 12 to 24 months. The task was very simple: the child was shown two images simultaneously (for example, a red car and a red doll, or a blue car and a pink car), and a camera recorded how long the child looked at each image, which is a measure of interest.

The researchers found that boys preferred cars and girls preferred dolls. No big surprise there. Unfortunately, because children 12 months old or older have already been provided with sex-typed toys, their looking preference may reflect the types of toys they have at home and the researchers could not draw any conclusions on whether this behavior was learned or innate.

The interesting finding lies in the colors: as it turns out, the children cared very little about the color of the images. Boys preferred the cars, regardless of whether they were pink or blue, and conversely, girls preferred the dolls, regardless of their color. In fact, the researchers found that as a whole, everybody liked red the most. This finding indicates that the stereotypical color preferences seen in older children are most likely learned behaviours.

As I’ve mentioned before, my favorite kind of research article is the one that leaves me with more questions than I started with, and this is one of them. Why was pink adopted as the “girl” color if girls aren’t naturally drawn to it? At what stage does the shift occur from not caring about colors to caring about them? Is this shift really purely socially driven? In any case, the next pajama I buy for a child will be red.

Reference: Infant’s preferences for toys, colors and shapes: sex differences and similarities. Jadva, V. et al. Arch Sex Behav [Epub ahead of print] (2010).

8 Responses to “A pink truck is still a truck”

Fawn said...

Jade is very consistent in telling us that her favourite colour is blue. (Though she will often add "And purple, and pink, too!")

But 50 years ago, pink was considered the "stronger" colour appropriate for boys, while blue was the softer colour for girls. So our thinking that pink is for girls and blue for boys is certainly not innate.

Thanks for the comment, Fawn! I was hoping that parents would chime in about their kids' preferences. :)

I agree that pink was not always the girl color, and it probably isn't the girl color currently in different cultures, either. So maybe the whole thing is just a fad?

Anonymous said...

Pink in gender form Wikipedia

* In Western culture, the practice of assigning pink to an individual gender began in the 1920s. From then until the 1940s, pink was considered appropriate for boys because being related to red it was the more masculine and decided color, while blue was considered appropriate for girls because it was the more delicate and dainty color, or related to the Virgin Mary.Since the 1940s, the societal norm was inverted; pink became considered appropriate for girls and blue appropriate for boys, a practice that has continued into the 21st century.[17]

* Though the color pink has sometimes been associated with negative gender stereotypes, some feminists have sought to 'reclaim' it. For example, the Swedish radical feminist party Feminist Initiative and the American activist women's group Code Pink: Women for Peace use pink as their color.

* The pink ribbon is the international symbol of breast cancer awareness. Pink was chosen partially because it is so strongly associated with femininity.

* It has been suggested that females prefer pink because of a preference for reddish things like ripe fruits and healthy faces.

Interesting post! I have two sons, ages 3 and 4. Both of them prefer pink to any other color, although I don't know whether the younger one is just copying the older one. We took them to get shoes last year and they both threw tantrums when Daddy wouldn't let them try on the pink sparkly Barbie sandals - boys' shoes are just not as fun, I guess! In situations where we have a set of different colored toys or bowls or cups, I always have to hide the pink one if there is only one, or else they will fight over it. I don't know why they both love pink - it is my favorite color but we don't actually have a lot of pink things nor do I wear pink a lot.

According to Wikipedia, "In Western culture, the practice of assigning pink to an individual gender began in the 1920s.[13] From then until the 1940s, pink was considered appropriate for boys because being related to red it was the more masculine and decided color, while blue was considered appropriate for girls because it was the more delicate and dainty color, or related to the Virgin Mary.[14][15][16] Since the 1940s, the societal norm was inverted; pink became considered appropriate for girls and blue appropriate for boys, a practice that has continued into the 21st century."

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous and xiao-an! And thanks for pulling that this information about the color pink. Everybody seems to agree that pink used to be the boy color, I wonder what happened in the 1940's?

xiao-an, thanks for the input about your boys, that's really funny about the Barbie sandals!

Thanks, Julie, for instigating interesting thoughts. My comment grew into a post of it's own.

Shift Knob said...

Nice discussion here! Yawn has the point! Our thinking is that pink is for girls and blue for boys which is not always true. In fact, my guy friend has pink car which his proud of... :)

Anonymous said...

Red is a color associated with Valor. Pink, being the softer form of red, as stated already, was considered a more masculine color. You can still see this in Victorian style houses, older Courts, and other, more historical, areas in the US architecture.

 
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