Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D.

Brain Babble

Are We Pushing Pink on Girls...Or Pushing Boys Away?

Pink, gendered toys, and cognitive and social development

Posted Jul 22, 2013

My brother got a remote-controlled race car for his 4th birthday. I, being the jealous big sister, begged and pleaded to play with the car at every opportunity. I should not have been shocked to get my very own remote-controlled car that Christmas. 

But I was. The car was black and had a spider emblem on the side. "Santa must have written the wrong name," 6-year-old me declared, ruffling through the pile of balled-up wrapping paper to check. But indeed, the car was for me. The boy car. 

Last week, The Conversation published a piece by Melissa Hines, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University, addressing gender differences in toy preference. Towards the second half of the article, the focus shifts toward girls' preferences for pink and its implications on cognitive development in both males and females.

A 2010 study by Hines and colleagues found that among 120 infants aged 12, 18, and 24 months, both genders prefer red hues over blue, as well as rounded objects over angular shapes. At 12 months, all infants pay more attention to dolls over cars; however, at 18 and 24 months, little boys spend significantly more time looking at cars over dolls—a result of acquired preference for cars, or learned avoidance of dolls?

Although both adult males and females, overall, prefer blue to pink, some studies have gone so far as to claim that the female tendency toward pink packs an evolutionary advantage. In a 2007 study by researchers at Newcastle University, study participants were asked to move a computer cursor as quickly as they could over their preferences from a series of paired, colored rectangles. While men tended to choose blue-green hues, women more often selected reddish/purply shades of blue. Study author Yahzu Ling suggests that this color preference evolved due to the female role of gathering berries; or, perhaps, their caregiving tendency to respond to a child red with fever. 

Now, this may be stretching it. Adult women's preferences for pink hues are more likely to be a remnant of childhood classical conditioning. In other words, one may prefer pink due, in part, to enjoyable experiences with pink toys and clothes as a young girl—not because an object resembles a ripened raspberry. After all, a walk down the toy aisle or baby section just goes to show that pink is certainly shoved down our throats from infancy. 

Hines' closing argument in her piece for The Conversation is that toys, which foster critical learning, cognitive development, and social skills, may explain sex differences in the adult brain when they are designed to be gender-specific. 

Hines cites the widely-accepted notions that females tend to be better writers, while males excel at spatial tasks—in particular, the ability to mentally rotate an object. Pink toys designed to foster language skills may discourage boys from similar opportunities, whereas boys may be acquiring critical spatial skills from blocks and other "boy toys." 

A convincing argument—however, it lacks evidence. Adult men and women have characteristic neuroanatomical differences, though this is likely due to nature over nurture. Notably, a 1995 study by Pearlson and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University concluded that Broca's area in females, implicated in language production, has 23% greater volume than those of males as measured by MRI. Wernicke's area, involved in language comprehension, is 13% large in women. On the other hand, adult men tend to havesignificantly greater parietal lobe surface area, a feature correlated with superior mental rotation of objects.

If a boy avoiding a pink doll isn't responsible for the size of his Broca's area, then what's with all the controversy over pink toys?

The more relevant issue may be social—not cognitive—development, and the negative consequences for gender non-conformity.

Rather, we may want to be more attuned to when a boy isn't avoiding a pink doll. After all, kids can be cruel, and for some, the sight of a little boy dressing a Barbie or a little girl controlling a black, spider-emblazoned toy car provides a prime opportunity for bullying.

recent study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health indicates that 1 in 10 children younger than age eleven experience an increased risk of physical or sexual abuse and psychological trauma due to gender non-conformity (when kids' interests fall outside of those typically expressed by others of their sex). Furthermore, adults aged 17-27 who were considered to be "non-conformers" as children demonstrated a prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) almost twice that considered "normal."

How parents and peers respond to gender non-conformity is key. Anger, fear, and misunderstanding, especially from individuals in those households believing strongly in traditional gender roles, contribute strongly to abuse and anxiety.

Should we pull pink toys from the shelves? I don't think that's possible or necessary. It's not harming little girls nor preventing boys from developing properly.

Should little boys and girls be able to play with any toy of their color and choosing without fear of physical or psychological consequences? Absolutely. But that issue really pertains to all aspects of life.

I grew up a pink-loving, kitty-obsessed girly-girl with Barbies bursting from their storage boxes and enough baby dolls to fill five cribs. Today I'm clueless when it comes to make-up, getting my PhD in the sciences, and wearing blue shoes next month in my blue-themed wedding.

I think I turned out alright. Though perhaps I should address that make-up issue before I walk down the aisle.

Hurlbert, A.C., & Y. Ling. (2007). Biological components of sex differences in color preference. Curr Biol DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.022

Jadva V, Hines M, & Golombok S (2010). Infants' preferences for toys, colors, and shapes: sex differences and similarities. Archives of sexual behavior, 39 (6), 1261-73 PMID: 20232129

Roberts, A. et al. (2012). Childhood gender nonconformity: A risk indicator for childhood abuse and posttraumatic stress in youth. Pediatrics DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-1804