Homo Consumericus

The nature and nurture of consumption

Sex-Specific Toy Preferences: Learned or Innate?

Should parents offer their children gender-neutral toys to avoid the promulgation of “sexist gender stereotypes”? Or might it be the case that toy preferences are a manifestation of universal sex-specific biological forces, and as such are perfectly expected? Toy manufacturers seem to be keenly aware of the correct answer. Read More

More primate examples

Gad - Richard Wrangham and other primatologists have also shown that adolescent chimpanzees play with "toys" that emulate their elders. Female adolescents have been observed carrying around rocks all day, which the researchers think may represent baby chimps. Male adolescents can be seen carrying around sticks, either as weapons or tools, emulating the older males.

While this is extrapolating, and needs more research, I find it fascinating. It seems to follow the pattern.

The studies that you

The studies that you reference here are testing children at 3 or 12 months of age. Could their preference for looking at cars or dolls perhaps be explained by the decor in their rooms? I know that there is a general preference for novelty, but I am unsure whether novel variations on a familiar subject would draw more attention than would completely novel objects. I am inclined to believe that they might. I'm at the airport right now, so I can't jump into the studies to see if they controlled for prior exposure to cars or dolls. Suggesting that this is based on some innate preference for masculine or feminine toys seems to suggest a rather substantial innate knowledge of objects and their biological relevance(especially with cars). I'm hesitant to describe it as an innate preference without exhausting other possibilities.

gender preferences

Before I became a mom, I was very much on the "nurture" side of the debate. I now have a very rambunctious boy - who is absolutely ALL boy. The way he plays is markedly different from the daughters of my friends (more bull in china shop rather than quiet and calm). I realized there are some big differences in the way they play that are not based on socialization.

That said - I'm a single mom and he lives with me full-time, and I've noticed some other interesting things. He emulates what he sees me do. Putting on face cream, shaving my legs, wearing heels - he loves pretending to do all of those. He loves to carry purses. Even though I own no pink, it is his absolute favorite color. He also loves trucks and fire engines. His favorite "toy" of all is a small guitar. He gravitates towards all things musical (has "played" piano with me since he was a few months old). I don't think we can discount the subtle impact of environment on toy preferences. I also think that personality plays a part in it as well.

In the gender/environment/temperament debate, I don't think the answer is either/or, but all of the above.

I'm a girl. I never

I'm a girl. I never "innately" preferred "girl toys," I played with trucks, army men, Legos, and things like that. The only interactions I had with Barbies were painting their faces like tribal warriors and holding mock executions with them.
So am I wrong about my gender? Am I f*cked up in the mind? Or does this idea of "innate gender preferences" not hold true for everybody...?


Of course this idea of "innate gender preferences" does not hold true for everybody, and no research claims that it does. We are talking here about group effects.

There is a common misunderstanding of findings presented by social scientists. When researchers say, for example, "girls prefer X", they do not mean that every girl prefers X. They mean that, in their sample, which may or may not be generalizable to a larger population, more girls prefer X than would be predicted by chance or compared to another group (i.e., boys). But, of course, there will be variation among individuals. In the examples of this article, that would mean that many boys prefer girls toys and many girls prefer boys toys. But on average, more girls prefer girls toys and more boys prefer boys toys.

I would venture to guess that there is a name for this misunderstanding, or fallacy, in the social sciences. I have called it the group effect fallacy.

Trucks were never a part of the natural ancestral environment.

-but doll babies, easy bake (i.e., primitive) ovens, and playing dress-up were. They were a part of everyday life. Electric guitars, not so much.

I think there's an important distinction here which gets glossed over because boy's toys are simply more advanced than girl's toys, and this doesn't cast females in a good light PC-wise.

I'm always somewhat amazed and astonished when ivory tower types "discover" what is common knowledge out here in the rest of the world. Just today I read that at MIT they'd recently learned - get this - people don't like to be backed into a corner! Wow. Pure imbecility. Though I suppose proving the plainly obvious to nincompoops is a good gig if you can stand it.

There's a great conference

There's a great conference proceedings article titled "you can't play 20 questions with nature and win". You should read it, Gaad.

Boys will be boys

I have never see such elation and fascination as when a little boy sees a truck, a fire engine or a trolley. You can't teach fascination. It is instinct. You might reinforce an interest, but a person will like what they like. My neighbor's kid at 2 and a half years old would dash out of the house to go watch the garbage truck coming down the street (of course with mom close behind!) I watched a little boy with the same look of awe when a steam roller was paving new road, and again yesterday when a trolley was picking up passengers and when my nephew obsesses about airplanes. Each time the parent is standing next to the child, quietly while his kid gets his "fix." A parent does not steer the activity. A parent may reinforce a child's interest certainly, but a parent cannot choose what his kid is going to "get into." Of course, there are exceptions, but they only prove the rule. You can show some boys as many trucks as you want - some will still wan the doll. Again proving; you cannot force a kid to like something just because you expose them to it.

Concise, well written article

There should be more scientific content available to lay people like this. An actual expert in the field and on the topic lays out the facts quickly and easily, dispelling myth and letting people get real empirical information.

Thank you for the kind words

Glad to hear that you enjoyed my article. Spread the word!


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Gad Saad is Professor of Marketing at Concordia University and author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.


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