Color and the making of gender in early childhood

Most of today’s readers weren’t following this blog back when I started writing about color preferences. Those posts are listed under the color tag. Now there’s a new paper on the subject that helps me think about how gender works in young children.

It’s called, “Preferences for Pink and Blue: The Development of Color Preferences as a Distinct Gender-Typed Behavior in Toddlers,” by Wang Wong and Melissa Hines, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the same journal where I published my paper on how adult color preferences are affected by the sex of their children. (Their paper is paywalled, but since we’re personal friends feel free to ask me for a look at my licensed copy.)

The researchers studied 126 children ages 20-40 months in a UK college town. The pertinent parts of their findings, for my purposes are: girls prefer pink over blue more than boys; but the the gap starts out quite small before age two and widens to age 3; the preferences are unstable, that is, the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 24 months are not the pinker girls and bluer boys at age 36 months. (The preferences were measured by asking which color they liked better on a card, and letting them choose between pink and blue gender-neutral toys.)

Whenever there is research showing differences between the sexes, I always like to look for the overlap (see, e.g., this post). That’s because people fixate on the differences to confirm their presumption that the differences are total, fixed, and baked in or genetic. This underlies the whole fixation on the dimorphism question. So when they report girls are more likely to choose pink over blue than boys, I plug the means and standard deviations into my graphing spreadsheet to see the implied distributions (assuming normality). Here is the overall pattern:


So, you can decide whether you think that’s a big difference, but you should factor in the size of the overlap. The change over about 14 months was pretty impressive, with boys and girls pulling apart. Here are the curves at 20-26 versus 34-40 months:


One possible interpretation of this pattern is that color preference is learned rather than baked in at birth, and this is a time kids learn it. That interpretation is strengthened by the further finding that, while the gender difference increases from age 2 to age 3, it’s not stable within individuals. That is, whether a kid was pink-positive or -negative at time 1 was not a predictor of their preference at time two. That’s what this figure shows — girls are more likely to be in the top-right, but the time-1–time-2 slopes aren’t significant:


That’s more evidence against the idea that the sex difference in color preference is determined at birth, which is also consistent with the historical evidence, as Jo Paoletti’s work shows.

Children themselves have a strong motivation to perform their gender identity in ways that please adults or perhaps other children, and that tendency exacerbates early sex differences. They can anchor this performance to an arbitrary marker like color. From the paper (references removed):

Gender-related cognitive processes have been implicated in the acquisition of gender-typed color preferences. Specifically, gender-typed behaviors may be acquired through self-socialization after children have developed gender identity, and become self-motivated to adopt gender norms.

Unlike critics of this blog, I don’t fear that gender differences will be erased if we don’t continuously reinforce and celebrate them. People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to. And reducing the pressure will help decrease both gender inequality and the stigma experienced by non-conforming people.

6 thoughts on “Color and the making of gender in early childhood

  1. “People will figure out ways to make the “natural” differences count enough to get the job done when they need to.”

    I don’t even get what this sentence means, and why is “natural” in italics? Your constant minimization of biology is disturbing. Is there any science that suggests that gender differences beyond arbitrary cultural preferences like pink and blue would be reduced in any significant way if our differences weren’t culturally reinforced? And why shouldn’t we celebrate gender differences, when of our greatest pleasures, sexual attraction, is physically and emotionally contingent on them for the great majority of people? Social and marketing experiments aiming towards a genderless environment so far have been either ineffective or repressive failures. Men and women have organized themselves in remarkably similar ways throughout history and the world today. Everyday, neuroscience and related sciences are revealing more and more shades of sex differences that will help us create better education, public health, and other instutions for both men and women, and figure out the optimal way to support (a tiny minority of) non-conforming people. And it’s just as easy to hypothesize that the more equal a society becomes, men and women will gravitate towards even more gendered preferences. There is already a hint of this some cross-cultural comparisons, when you look at the sort of careers men and women alike with similar educational opportunities select. I find your utopic vision gloomy, sexless, and repressive.


  2. I would just like to note that the fact that differences between sexes on any given trait change over age, reverse, or overlap, does not mean the trait is not (_somehow_) biologically mediated (at the same time, I do not argue preference for “pink” is somehow coded in genes).

    The most obvious example is height. It’s hard to argue that differences in height are due to socialising factors and societal expectation, just because initially girls have higher posture as the boys of the same age.


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