Monday, 5 September 2011

At what age do girls prefer pink?

Crudely speaking, the psychological field of gender development is split between those who see gender differences as learned via socially constructed ideas about gender, and those who believe many gender differences are actually “sex differences”, innate and biologically driven.

In Western cultures, girls consistently prefer pink, boys prefer blue. Which academic camp lays claim to this difference? Past research has made a case, in terms of the evolutionary advantage of finding fruit, for why females might be biologically predisposed to prefer pink and other bright colours. But a new study purports to show that girls only acquire their preference for pink, and boys their aversion to it, at around the age of two to three, just as they’re beginning to talk about and become aware of gender. Vannessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache say their finding undermines the notion of innate sex differences in colour preference. “If females have a biological predisposition to favour colours such as pink, this preference should be evident regardless of experience of the acquisition of gender concepts,” they said.

LoBue and DeLoache presented 192 boys and girls aged between seven months and five years with pairs of small objects (e.g. coasters and plastic clips) and invited them to reach for one. Each item in a pair was identical to the other except for its colour: one was always pink, the other either green, blue, yellow or orange. The key test was whether boys and girls would show a preference for choosing pink objects and at what age such a bias might arise.

At the age of two, but not before, girls chose pink objects more often than boys did, and by age two and a half they demonstrated a clear preference for pink, picking the pink-coloured object more often than you’d expect based on random choice. By the age of four, this was just under 80 per cent of the time – however there was evidence of this bias falling away at age five.

Boys showed the opposite pattern to girls. At the ages of two, four and five, they chose pink less often than you’d expect based on random choices. In fact, their selection of the pink object became progressively more rare, reaching about 20 per cent at age five.

A second experiment zoomed in on the age period of two to three years, to see how colour preferences changed during this crucial year. The same procedure as before was repeated with 64 boys and girls in this age group. Among the children aged under two and a half, both boys and girls chose pink objects around 50 per cent of the time, just as you’d expect if they were choosing randomly and had no real colour preference. Among those aged between two and a half to three years, by contrast, the boys showed a bias against choosing pink and the girls showed a bias in favour of pink.

“This research lends important information to when children develop gender-stereotyped colour preferences …” the researchers said. “Knowing exactly when children begin to demonstrate these tendencies can help lead to fuller understanding of the development of gender-stereotyped behaviour more generally and can be an important marker for future research in this domain.”
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ResearchBlogging.orgLoBue, V., and DeLoache, J. (2011). Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 29 (3), 656-667 DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02027.x

If you're interested in gender development and the way it's studied and talked about, I recommend Cordelia Fine's book Delusions of Gender.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

10 comments:

  1. It depresses me that there's still a need to address the claims that pink being for girls is somehow part of our evolutionary development. The trend is only about 60 years old; essentially it was created on purpose to help children self-identify a gender and then everyone forgot this and got excited that children identify with the colour.

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  2. Enjoyed the post and the mini 'nature/nurture' debate. The Psychologist a few issues back carried some interesting discussions about Cordelia Fine and her book - some of the best discussion in years about genes and environment.

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  3. I really like reading your posts, keep 'em coming!

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  4. I agree with Andrew--I find it incredible that serious scientists might still think that pink and blue preferences are somehow genetically encoded. Given that we start trimming nurseries in the "correct" colors before we even bring baby home, it seems foolish to assume that its our genes and not our "jeans" that determine our preferences. Cordelia Fine pretty much puts this foolishness to rest in her fabulous book, Delusions of Gender, especially where she reveals that the pink-girl/blue-boy assignments are only about 60 years old in the US. In fact, it used to be the other way round--pink was a strong color (and thus male of course), while blue was soft and girly. Here's a nice review of it that focuses in part on the issue of color: http://www.demotix.com/news/687117/beating-women-pink-and-blue

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  5. Andrew and Nora make an important point about the color thing being a recent development in US culture; an expansion on this study that I'd like to see done is to find another culture with different (or no) "gendered" colors and see what kind of preferences boy and girl infants have there.

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  6. One of our daughters grew into the pink when she went to nursery at 2.Life was pink at 3.Around then, due to speech difficulties was rejected by the peer group.When at pre-school she did join the boys and rejected anything pink or girly.She is very sporty and one more of the boys.She has thrived and flourished for three years, she is contented, happy and full of fun.
    Today was her first day at junior school.The boys wont let her play football any more because she's a girl. They are also gutted because she's very good at it.They say they are not supposed to play with girls anymore. One has to see their sad faces to understand the social pressure on this boys.
    Gender is cultural, this same kids will meet in ten years, possibly not for a football match. An in twenty will be all discussing sexism.

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  7. I don't believe there are anthropologic, historical or artistic observations that support the idea of pink as a biological preference for girls. If it were so, one would observe pink as a dominant feminine color throughout all human history and within various human cultures at various times. The indigenous people of the world do not show any preference of pink as a feminine color. Nor is pink a dominant color in various human civilizations such as the Greeks, the Romans, the Aztecs, and so forth. From what little I know about art history, I do not recall seeing pink as a consistent social color expressing femininity throughout various cultures and times.

    Pink and blue are colors of fashion which is a function of any given culture and at given point in time.

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  8. Anonymous1:54 am

    I am female and have always preferred blue. I have three girls whose favourite colours are blue, purple and green. My little brother loved pink until he was about 8 yrs old and realised that colour choice would get him in trouble with his mates. Funnily enough he married a girl who is obsessed with the colour pink and chooses it for everything. Even still I associate pink with female and blue with males because of its social meaning.

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  9. Sue Gerrard5:12 am

    Both of my children have visual abnormalities, amongst them abnormal eye movements, a scotoma and difficulties with discrimination on the red-green axis. Eyes are complicated things. Cone cells sensitive to different light wavelengths vary between individuals and their distribution is also sex-linked ('colour blindness' is more common in males). Photosensitive retinal ganglion cells contain melanopsin, a pigment that is sensitive to blue light, and is implicated in entraining circadian rhythms, motor control and mood.

    Is it therefore not possible that colour preferences emerging in toddlers could be culturally determined AND biologically based as a consequence of development?

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  10. I've just started along my psychology degree and i came across this through our virtual campus, i found it very interesting, Although one Variable that seems to be missed is the parents influence on the children, were the children seperated from these test colours. Like someone above said, This is something we conform to regardless of concious thought. We pick out those pink dresses for our daughters with out much thought behind it.
    To me the only way to test to see if there is a relationship between gender > genes and our colour preference is to eliminate all possible varibles. See if the results show the same, Perhaps this research could shine a light on personality types forming at an early age, deviding the population into those that conform to what they know and those that prefer it investigate new things.
    I am however 3 days into my course so probably talking alot of tosh, but this got me really thinking. Thank you ^-^

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