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Sex-Specific Toy Preferences: Learned or Innate?

The biological bases of toy preferences

Within pop psychology as well as among most social scientists, it is now accepted wisdom that gender roles are in part learned via the socialization that stems from offering little boys and little girls “gender-stereotyped” toys to play with. Young Evan and Eva learn about their respectively expected gender roles by interacting with so-called stereotypically masculine and feminine toys (e.g., truck versus doll). This is an instantiation of the blank slate view of the human mind (see my recent article on this issue here) as relating to a wide range of sex differences (in this case gender identity). Some parents have decided that they wish to fight against such pernicious and unwelcomed gender socialization by raising their child in a “gender-neutral” manner (see here and here).

A poor understanding of human nature in general, and evolved sexual dimorphisms in particular, could result in tragic consequences. For example, the late Johns Hopkins psychologist John Money felt that boys possessing inadequate male genitalia (e.g., micropenis) or had had their genitalia damaged (e.g., via a circumcision) could seamlessly be raised as little girls since supposedly gender was largely learned (gender reassignment). This eventually led to the suicide of one of his patients, David Reimer. Countless scientists have debunked this astonishingly false premise perhaps none more directly than by Milton Diamond, who took it to task to refute Money’s harmful quackery.

Returning to sex-specific toy preferences, are trucks and dolls nothing but a form of antiquated and sexist form of gender socialization? The short answer is no. In several of my published works (e.g., The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption; The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature; my forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology on evolutionary consumption; see also my TEDx talk wherein I discuss this issue), I offer a detailed critique of the “toy preferences are learned” premise by pointing to findings stemming from several research streams:

1. Children who are in the pre-socialization stage of their cognitive development exhibit sex-specific preferences (Jadva, Hines, & Golombok, 2010; Alexander, Wilcox, & Woods, 2009). Hence, by definition, these toy penchants manifest themselves prior to an infant’s capacity to be socialized via learning. I should also mention that these sex-specific preferences occur in exactly the same manner across temporal periods and cultural settings. It would be an extraordinary coincidence that parents across all known cultures seem to “socialize” their children via the same sex-specific toys.

2. Little girls who suffer from congenital adrenal hyperplasia, an endocrinological disorder that masculinizes morphological features and behavioral patterns, exhibit toy preferences that are more masculine than their female counterparts who do not suffer from the disorder (Berenbaum & Hines, 1992). In other words, there is a link between hormones and toy/play preferences (see also point 4 below).

3. Studies using our primate cousins (e.g., rhesus and vervet monkeys) have found the exact same sex-specific preferences in infants within those species (Hassett, Siebert, &Wallen, 2008; Alexander & Hines, 2002). It might be difficult to argue that papa and mama rhesus and vervet monkeys are engaging in “stereotypically sexist” gender socialization of their offspring!

4. As I explained in an earlier post (see here), the digit ratio is a sexually dimorphic marker of exposure to androgens in utero. Males who exhibit more masculine digit ratios are more likely to engage in male-specific behaviors and preferences (cf. the link between men’s digit ratios and risk-taking proclivities, Stenstrom, Saad, Nepomuceno, & Mendenhall, 2011). With that in mind, boys’ digit ratios and sex-typed play are correlated such that more masculine ratios correspond to more masculine play behaviors (Hönekopp & Thierfelder, 2009).

Thus, work stemming from developmental psychology, comparative psychology, and endocrinology, using both non-clinical and clinical populations, and a wide assortment of dependent measures (e.g., eye gaze, digit ratio), points to an unassailable conclusion: the sex-specificity of toy preferences is shaped by sex-specific biological forces. This does not mean that parents do not reinforce these biological realities via various forms of socialization. However, it does mean that to the extent that nurture matters, it typically takes place within boundaries set by nature.

Advice to parents: As we enter the Christmas gift-giving season (see my earlier posts on gift-giving here, here, and here; see also the recent US News & World Report article on gift-giving in which I am quoted and cited), you need not feel torn about your likely toy gifts to your children. You are not “harming” them by offering them the standard sex-specific toys. Trust your parental instincts!

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