Gender differences in toy use: boys play with boy toys, girls with girl toys

January 30, 2020 • 10:30 am

Every parent I know with whom I’ve discussed the issue of sex differences has told me that, if they have children of both sexes, they notice behavioral differences between boys and girls quite early, and these include preferences for which toys they play with. Usually, but not inevitably, boys play with “boy toys” (trucks, trains, guns, soldiers) and girls prefer “girl toys” (dolls, kitchen stuff, tea sets, art stuff). Even when girls are given trucks and boys given dolls, they gravitate to the stereotyped toys. I’m using the classification employed by authors whose work is summarized in the meta-analysis I’m discussing today: the paper by Davis and Hine).

If you’re a hard-core blank-slater, you’ll attribute the toy-use difference to socialization: parents and society somehow influence children about which toys to prefer. If you’re a genetic determinist, you’ll attribute the behavior largely to innate preferences—the result of selection on our ancestors. And, of course, both factors could operate.

But there’s some evidence for a genetic component to this preference: the fact that rhesus monkeys, who presumably don’t get socialized by their parents, show a similar difference in toy preference, even when tested as adults. The monkey paper is shown below (click for free access). A BBC site implies that a related study with similar results was also done in Barbary macaques, a different species; but I can’t find any resulting publication. (UPDATE: The same result has been seen in vervet monkeys, as a reader notes in the comments.)

First, a picture:

And the paper:

And the abstract from the rhesus macaque study (my emphasis)

Socialization processes, parents, or peers encouraging play with gender specific toys are thought to be the primary force shaping sex differences in toy preference. A contrast in view is that toy preferences reflect biologically determined preferences for specific activities facilitated by specific toys. Sex differences in juvenile activities, such as rough and tumble play, peer preferences, and infant interest, share similarities in humans and monkeys. Thus if activity preferences shape toy preferences, male and female monkeys may show toy preferences similar to those seen in boys and girls. We compared the interactions of 34 rhesus monkeys, living within a 135 monkey troop, with human wheeled toys and plush toys. Male monkeys, like boys, showed consistent and strong preferences for wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like girls, showed greater variability in preferences. Thus, the magnitude of preference for wheeled over plush toys differed significantly between males and females. The similarities to human findings demonstrate that such preferences can develop without explicit gendered socialization. We offer the hypothesis that toy preferences reflect hormonally influenced behavioral and cognitive biases which are sculpted by social processes into the sex differences seen in monkeys and humans.

But if you’re dealing with humans, where socialization is also a possibility, the first thing to ask is this: Do boys and girls really differ in their toy preferences? For if they don’t, there’s no need to adhere to either socialization or genetic hypotheses. Previous research has generally showed a difference in the expected direction, but it’s not observed 100% of the time, and some studies show no difference between boys and girls.

The purpose of the 2018 study I’m discussing today, shown below, was to perform a meta-analysis of many earlier studies investigating toy preference  to see if there are statistically significant differences between the sexes when looking at the overall data.(Click on screenshot to see the paper, get the pdf here, and reference is at the bottom). I’ll try to be brief, which is hard for such a long paper!

Methods: Meta-analysis is a statistical way to combine the results of different studies, even if they use different methods. What the analysis looks for is an overall pattern among different studies: in this case, toy preferences between boys and girls. The paper of Davis and Hines, from the Gender Development Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, measures the sizes and direction of preference differences between the sexes and conducts overall tests of significance using the statistical package R.

They tested not only if there was simply a significant difference between the sexes (i.e., is there a difference between boys and girls in toy preference?), but also whether there was a difference in preference when the two sexes were tested separately. For example, there could be a significant difference between boys and girls in toy preference, but it could be due entirely to one sex, say boys, preferring boy toys, with girls showing no preference. To test the within-sex preference, you need to look at boys and girls separately.

The authors also analyzed the data using the two “classic” examples of sex-specific toys: dolls versus toy vehicles.

To see if there was a pattern over time—you’d expect a decrease over the years if socialization had decreased—they looked at the relationship between the year a study was published and the size of any sex-specific preferences. Since schools and parents are now making a big effort to socialize kids against playing with sex-specific toys, one might expect the preference to decrease over the five decades of the work included in the meta-analysis.

Finally, the authors tested whether the degree of preference changed with the child’s age. If preference is due to socialization, one might expect an increase with age, but one might also expect the same thing if hardwired differences simply take time to show up.

The authors plowed through 3,508 studies that initially looked relevant, eliminating the vast majority because they didn’t satisfy the authors’ criteria. This pruning wound up with 75 toy-preference studies included in the meta-analysis.

The age of children among studies ranged from 3 months to 11 years, and a variety of different tests were done, including “free play” (children were given a group of toys and allowed to choose ones to play with “in an unstructured way”), “visual preference” (children were shown images of toys and the amount of time they spent looking at a toy was a measure of their interest in it), “forced choice” (usually a child is forced to choose between two pictures of toys, one a “girl’s toy” and one a “boy’s toy”), and “naturalistic choice” (what kind of toys children own; the authors did not use studies in which children’s collections of toys reflected their parents’ buying habits rather than what children asked for).

Toys were classified by the experimenters, and the authors avoided studies in which classification was done post facto (that is, any toys preferred by boys were subsequently classified as “boy toys” and the same for girls.

Here’s the graph they give of how toys were classified among the various experiments. The bars represent the frequency in the 75 studies in which a given kind of toy was classified as a boy’s toy (black bars), a girl’s toy (light gray bars) or a “neutral” toy (medium-gray bars):

(From paper): Fig. 2 Toys used as girl-related, boy-related, and neutral toys as listed in method sections of studies included in the meta-analysis. Studies could contribute more than one toy to the figure. These toys were mentioned in method sections of studies, but data were not typically reported for each individual toy. Most studies reported statistics for groups of toys, but not for individual toys


The results were clear and their significance high; you can read the paper to see more:

1.) There were large and highly significant average differences between the two sexes in preference for both boy-related and girl-related toys. This was in the “expected” direction. As I note above, this doesn’t tell you whether girls prefer girl-toys over boy toys or boys prefer boy toys over girl toys; it just says that there’s an overall difference between the sexes in their preference for one class of toy versus the other. BUT. . . .

2.) Within boys, boys preferred boy toys more than girl toys. And within girls, girls preferred girl toys more than boy toys. The overall sex difference, then, is the result of each sex preferring in general the toys considered “appropriate” for that sex.”

3.) #1 and #2 also hold for the “plush toys versus vehicles” test: there was a highly significant differences between boys and girls in toy preference, and that reflected girls’ preference for plush toys over vehicles and boys’ preference for vehicles over plush toys.

4.) “No choice” tests showed a stronger degree of sex-specific preference than did “choice” tests like free-play experiments. But the three other methods of assessing preference also showed statistically significant sex-specific differences.

5.) In three out of four analyses, the degree of preference increased with the age of the child. The only exception was the size of girls’ sex-specific preference for girl-related over boy-related toys, which showed no significant change.

Finally, and the one result that bears on the “genes versus socialization” hypotheses:

6.) The year of publication showed no relationship with the gender difference. Boys preferred boy toys over girl toys, and girls girl toys over boy toys, to the same extent over the 5 decades of studies. This was true of all four ways of measuring sex difference; in no case did the significance of the temporal relationship drop below 0.103 (it has to be below 0.05 to be considered significant).  This goes counter to what is expected if “socialization” had decreased in the last 50 years, for child preference would also have been expected to decrease if that preference was due to society’s enforcing standards and stereotypes on children’s toy affinity.

What does it all mean?  On the face of it, all this study shows is that there are consistent differences in toy preferences between boys and girls, with each sex preferring the sex-specific toys labeled by the previous experimenters. Methodology does influence the degree of preference, but there is a strong and consistent preference in the expected direction.

That in itself says nothing bearing on whether toy preference is innate, the result of socialization, or a mixture of both. But two facts imply that a reasonable amount of toy preference is innate. The first is the results of the macaque studies, showing similar preference for vehicles over plush toys in one (or maybe two) studies. Since macaques don’t adhere to a human-like patriarchy, nor do they ever see toys before the tests are done, this implies an innate sex-specific difference in preference.

The same holds for the lack of change in the degree of preference with time in the human studies. One might expect that preference would have decreased over the years given the attempts of parents (at least in much of the West) to avoid socializing their children into preferring “appropriate” toys. But that didn’t happen. However, I’m not sure whether anyone’s actually measured that decrease in socialization.

Finally, the fact that preference seems to be present at very young ages, when socialization is seemingly impossible, may be evidence for an innate component to preference. However, the preference increases with age, and one might say that this trend reflects socialization. And blank slaters might claim that covert or unknowing socialization is going on right from birth.

In the end, I find the evidence from the macaques the most convincing, but I have a feeling that human children, whose preferences parallel those of macaques, are also showing preferences based in part on evolution. Studies in other primates would be useful (do our closer relatives like gorillas and chimps show such preferences?) as well as more studies of very young children, perhaps using children brought up in homes where socialization is deliberately avoided.


Davis, J. T. M. and M. Hines. 2020. How Large Are Gender Differences in Toy Preferences? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Toy Preference Research. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Online, published 27 January, 2020


114 thoughts on “Gender differences in toy use: boys play with boy toys, girls with girl toys

  1. Years ago a friend of mine was trying to raise her baby
    son in a gender neutral environment, being careful not to give him stereotypical boy toys. One day she saw him biting his sandwich into the shape of a gun, and then waving it about with a big grin, saying ‘bang bang’.

    1. When my boys were pre-school and playing with similar aged neighbour girls and boys we parents collectively avoided giving them toy guns.

      Yet ‘guns’ were fabricated from twigs or LEGO without parental suggestion. Perhaps the wider impact of society, or, more likely I think, pre-existing preference.

      1. I wasn’t allowed toy guns because my parents didn’t like the idea of treating weapons as toys. I still played all those violent games with makeshift weapons.

        1. There is a wonderful tale told by a woman evolutionary biologist (whose name escapes me, sorry). She had a daughter and then a son some years apart, so the little boy inherited many of his sister’s toys.

          Among them a Barbie, in which he showed a particular interest: he used it to hit the dog.

    2. This was also my experience. My son was quite clever manufacturing guns from legos, sticks etc. My favorite was the gun he produced with modular origami at which point we gave up and purchased Nerf guns for him. My daughter was the same to my great surprise. The girliest girl. Dolls and dresses.

    3. I met a street vendor making balloon toys and he told me a story of when a mom said no sword-balloon for her son. So he made him a poodle-balloon. The boy walked five feet before he started slashing at his sister as if the poodle was a pirate sword.

      Parents. They mean well. Alas the deterministic universe has the final word.

  2. Couldn’t the difference in toy preference in monkeys still be (at least partly) due to socialization? Not that the parents or other in-group monkeys are pushing boy monkeys to play with trucks and girls to dolls. But that they’re socializing them to other behaviors that are then correlated with a preference for these toys?

    1. I consider that far-fetched, but of course all things are possible. One could do these tests on monkeys raised in isolation, or by a single parent in isolation, but those tests would be unethical.

          1. Not quite true, according to Snopes. He built a crib designed to make the child comfortable, but it was not a Skinner box. The rumor started that the child was treated like a lab animal. Not really.

  3. I read the study in detail.

    I think there are innate differences between the sexes, but, being a person who never played with “girl” toys, I also know that there can be considerable pressure to conform.

    Blocks and Farm toys are both listed as “boy” toys, and animals are listed as “girl” toys. These were my favorites, and I’m not sure how you do a farm without animals. And, here I am, late in life, still being a farmer. I was made to feel like a freak when I was a kid. Less driven girls might have succumbed to the societal shaping, but, being the person I am, I never gave up my dream. That, too, may have a genetic basis. I can trace both my love of rural life and my tenacity to near ancestors, both male and female.

    I hope that the complexity of personality can someday be accepted and celebrated.


    1. Yes, there’s certainly been socialization, like parents giving sex-specific toys to their kids. I hope I didn’t give the impression that I didn’t think socialization was a factor. It clearly is. What I’m asking is if genetics and evolution could be PART of the explanation, and I think it’s likely.

      1. I think genetics are a factor, and probably sex-specifics can be part of that.

        When we went to Switzerland five years ago to see the villages where my family is from, I walked into the cemetery of the Niederbipp church where my great-great-grandfather was a member when my great-grandfather was born. He was a professional horse trainer, coachman of the mill. He bred, raised and trained the horses that drove the mill wheels.

        My great-grandfather was his oldest son, and had no interest in the horses. He moved to Basel as a young man and learned to be a silk dyer.

        The first row of headstones in the cemetery was my family’s. All of the headstones had horse heads, or spurs, or horseshoes on them. I almost cried when I saw them. I was not, after all, the family freak. I found out later that the horse gene has popped up in some of my more distant cousins, too.

        So, that one was not sex-specific. But it certainly is prepotent.


    2. Yeah peer pressure is, I think, often a stronger persuasive force than parental guidance. I mentioned peer pressure without reading your comment first but boys won’t select typically “girl” toys if they are going to be ridiculed. I remember being ridiculed for playing with boys when I was a girl. Happily, I wasn’t ridiculed for playing with toy cars and plastic dinosaurs with the boys.

      1. Not long after we first started dating, my then-future wife told me she lost all interest in playing with dolls as a child the first time she saw Elvis on TV.

        Haven’t thought about that in years, and I never really gave it all that much thought at the time, but for some reason it straightaway made sense to me. 🙂

      2. Now that you mention dinosaurs, why are nearly all boys into dinosaurs at one stage or another, but hardly any girls? It is not like guns or vehicles that have written ‘boy toy’ all over them, I’d say dinosaurs would/should be sex-neutral (like, say, painting). I find that very peculiar.

        1. Could be exposure at home. I didn’t know any other kids (male or female) that were big into dinosaurs when I was growing up. It’s much more common now.

          1. Both my kids were exposed equally to dinosaurs. Only one of them cared much about them and invented a word for dinosaurs that also applied to trucks and earth moving equipment.

            Guess which one.

        2. Dinosaurs seem to trigger fear in boys. They may represent the monster-under-the-bed scenario. I think boys tend to be obsessed with physical power and how to gain control of their environment. Look at the fascination boys have with superheros. A superhero allows boys to externalize the violent drama that must plague them internally. Speculation, of course.

        3. What? What? Girls not into dinosaurs?? I loved dinosaurs back in the late 1940’s and ’50’s when I was a kid. In junior high I told my science teacher I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up, and this kind teacher encouraged me.

          But socialization was stronger. I became a housewife the way my parents taught me. I was sent to college because I could be an educated housewife and therefore an asset to my future husband. Liberal Arts.

          Now I’m 78 and I still love dinosaurs. Surely I’m not the only girl??

      3. I agree. My eldest daughter loved dinosaurs and Lego until she entered kindergarden. Then we experienced, in a matter of weeks, what I still call the “pink explosion”: the dinos made place for unicorns, mermaids and fairies. She would not wear dark blue or green anymore, as they were, to her, “boys colours”. Now, being seven years old, her colour range has – thankfully – broadened again. Her younger sister always loved what her sister did, thus she started much earlier with her pink phase.

        I once read that when children first start to think about their sex “role” (around the age of three/ four) they try very hard to conform to what others of their sex do – especially the older children.

        That said, my daughters also love toy cars, hit each other with wooden swords and build huge Lego or wooden block castles – for the fairies :-). And when little boys come to visit us they love my daughters plastic jewellery as much as my girls.

        I do think that these preferences have a genetic component, but peer pressure is very important too. It is kind of funny that nearly all parents of my daughters friends were as perplexed as we were when their girls started to morph into little princesses.. All of us are liberal parents with dads who shared parental leave and very non-pink moms, and still..

        1. I remember being absolutely terrified that my parents would buy me a boys bike. It’s not exactly a toy in the sense of other items but it was distinct in being for girls. And I knew that I’d be made fun of if I had a boys bike. My bike had a girls centre bar (which to me is better and should be that way for all bikes for children anyway) and a basket with flowers on it. It was a blue bike. I did take it to play with my boy friends and I road their boy bikes as they had peddle brakes which I thought were cool and better.

        2. Oh and I too went through a pink phase. I’m ashamed of that now. I actually shied away from pink for years because I saw it as stereotypical and have only recently, as a middle aged woman, started accepting it again. I have some pink phone cases & iPad cases. I figure if they are pink, men won’t want them too and maybe that reduces stealing by half the population (of course they can take the case off but I hope it would just repel them :D)

    3. “I’m not sure how you do a farm without animals.”

      Oats, barley, wheat, vegetables… The stuff vegetarians subsist on!

      1. I was always more interested in the animals, though.

        And, if grazers and browsers are part of the ecosystem, they do contribute to the health of the land if managed properly.


        1. Fisher Price was before my time. I collected my own farm set, animal by animal, with Lincoln Logs for buildings, and fences from individual purchases.

          Even when I stopped playing with the stuff, I was reluctant to give it away. Some part of me thought that if I let the set go, that would mean the end of my dream.

          Fortunately, once I got out on my own, the pull was still strong. I’d bought my first horse within a couple of months of getting away from my family and the ‘burbs, and I’ve never looked back.


          1. I just thought that GBJames’s play set would be boring because it would all be corn and wheat. 😀 I was mostly being a smart ass.

  4. I have a hunch that very small children and the macaques might be treating the dolls as if they were living things and not “toys.” And I don’t just mean playing pretend, but not being sufficiently cognitively developed yet to discern the difference.

    1. I liked to play with stuffed animals as a kid. My favourite animal toy was a talking Yertle the Turtle and I dressed him in doll clothes. I didn’t really like the dolls. I figure my misanthropy and love of animals had a genetic component that was expressed early on.

      1. I had a Teddy and a Panda bear (the latter got lost, causing a lot of chagrin), but I remember receiving a good hiding for cutting the belly of a plastic doll playing ‘doctor’ (I must have been four to six, not really sure, but I can remember how upset my mother was).

  5. Peer pressure should also be taken into account when it comes to socialization. Boys are less likely to play with those toys associated with girls as they will be ridiculed by their peers.

    1. I would think that would not apply to preschool kids much, since, I assume, they are not as subject to such group pressure. The effect should become stronger as the kids grow through elementary school.

      1. I dunno, I remember being very much pressured as a kid of that age. I think the pressure is there but as the kids age, they tend to care more about acceptance from peers than acceptance from parents.

        1. I have no memory of any social influence when I was that age, so I can’t say anything about it from experience.

          1. I have a lot of early memories, including one that I was freaked out again by recently which was a dentist slapping me and telling me to shut up after not letting my mom come in while he treated me.

              1. Ya think?! He lost his shit one day and up and moved to Florida. Or so they say. He was probably fleeing a crime. I hope He didn’t do anything worse to me that I don’t remember.

              2. Ya think?! He lost his shit one day and up and moved to Florida. Or so they say. He was probably fleeing a crime. I hope He didn’t do anything worse to me that I don’t remember.

      2. Yeah, I tend to agree with Rickflick, these preferences appear early, well before Kindergarten.
        I think ‘socialization; is marginal and late, if anything.
        As a parent, having a girl and boys, and -since at the time I believed in this ‘socialization’ stuff- trying to be as gender neutral as possible, I was in for a big surprise. They would have none of it: my girl was very much ‘girlish’, and my boys ‘boyish’, and G*d knows I did my best to be gender neutral.

  6. I never had any interest in girl toys growing up, even though dolls were pressured on me. I remember being offered a big reward after my tonsils were removed. My mother handed me one of those Barbie dolls with the black and white one piece bathing suit. Even 55 years later I can remember the incredible feeling of disappointment. I’d wanted an electric car racing track or a train set. I don’t know what all that means but there was a *lot* of pressure on me to conform to the little girl stereotype from teachers and parents.

    1. Oh yeah me too. I had a train set & a racing track. The racing track was fun but in the 70s they weren’t the easiest to operate. I always wanted to drive my car really fast and it would zing off the track around the corners. Luckily no one got hurt. 🙂 I used to take my toy cars (not the racing track ones since they only worked on the track) outside to play with & to school to play with. I also had a collection of small plastic animals that I played with as well. My mom bought me beads to do crafts with and I used them with marbles to simulate herds of animals and groups of people instead.

      1. LOL! My brother had the racing track and the cars did indeed fly off the track if you went too fast. I wasn’t allowed to play with his toys, though I was allowed to watch him play with them. :-/ He had the best toys and I never did get my own race cars. I did finally make do with small plastic cowboys and stagecoaches. 🙂

        1. Oh how awful. I would have lost my mind not being able to play with the race cars because it was just the funnest thing to me!

  7. I never had any interest in girl toys growing up, even though dolls were pressured on me. I remember being offered a big reward after my tonsils were removed. My mother handed me one of those Barbie dolls with the black and white one piece bathing suit. Even 55 years later I can remember the incredible feeling of disappointment. I’d wanted an electric car racing track or a train set. I don’t know what all that means but there was a *lot* of pressure on me to conform to the little girl stereotype from teachers and parents.

  8. Particularly given the rhesus macaque results, I wonder if much of the difference in preferences is due to heritable “mothering” instincts in females. The monkeys presumably don’t have a clue what a toy vehicle is, other than it is interesting in many ways, but plush toys make a pretty good surrogate for babies.

  9. And where do action figures fall on the boy-girl spectrum of toys? I had a lot of star wars action figures I played with and I played with action figures with boys like GI Joe. The GI Joe of the 70s was big and had real hair and I remember the boy I played with used to ask if I wanted “to play with his dollies” so hmmmmmm….

    1. My slightly older sister had Barbies and Ken. I had GI Joes. Even when she was running the game GI Joe kicked Ken’s ass. Poor Ken. No respect, not even from little girls.

      1. Ha ha poor Ken but he just wasn’t tough. Did you have the GI Joe with the hair? That one was a big toy. I bet it’s worth something now. I remember Eddie Murphy doing a whole bit about how GI Joe shrunk down to the plastic toy he became.

        1. 🙂 Yeah, I’m from the era of real GI Joes. Large, hair, beard, scarred face. My newest one was “Kung Fu Grip” GI Joe.

          I inherited my older brother’s GI Joe stuff and then accumulated my own. All together I had pretty much everything. From what I understand that stuff would be worth a good amount these days. Unfortunately my Mom got rid of it all some time during my college years. Didn’t even let me know! No, “You want this stuff? If not I’m throwing it away.”

          So yeah, when I was a kid I played with dolls.

          1. Damn! And I remember the Kung Fu Grip GI Joe ads on TV. When I was a kid I desperately wanted a Stretch Armstrong. My parents thought it was stupid so wouldn’t buy it for me. They couldn’t understand the appeal of stretching a toy’s arms but to kids this thing was great. Then I guess some kids stretched Stretch Armstrong’s arms too much & some toxic goo came out out the arms. This made my parents feel justified in their decision. To this day I don’t understand why they couldn’t see the appeal. I think I’d still enjoy a toy like Stretch Armstrong. I’d probably bring it to work to entertain my coworkers.

            I had (and still have) the Star Wars land speeder. The wheel used to get stuck in our carpet (not shag but it still had some loft). Back then, toys were quite expensive and I remember my parents couldn’t afford to buy me all the Star Wars figures but getting one was such a treat. I have the jawa with the vinyl cloak. I felt ripped off when they came out with the cloth one after but apparently it’s worth something now.

        2. You appear to have this thing with hair. Was that only with anthropomorphic dolls, or also with animal dolls? Just curious.

          1. Why because I mentioned GI Joe. I don’t think I have a thing with hair it’s just that that particular GI Joe was amazing. You didn’t get toys with hair that were “action figures”. They were mostly just plastic, especially male ones. Ken had plastic hair. But this GI Joe had real (buzz cut) hair.

      1. Yeah the action figure designation, to me, sounds a lot like a way to make it okay for your son to play with a doll. Not long ago, parents worried their son playing with dolls made him seem like a sissy and a sissy meant gay and gay was bad. We’ve come a long way but I suspect the macho thinking is still there. Girls had it easier. I don’t recall being ridiculed by anyone for playing with cars, action figures, plastic dinosaurs (which were my favourite and hard to find in my day) by my peers but I think some girls were pressured to play with dolls by parents who thought they weren’t going to nurture a mother if they played with plastic dinos.

        1. Oh and when I did play with dolls I distinctly remember my mother telling someone, “she is NOT being trained for motherhood by playing with the doll”.

  10. “’We offer the hypothesis that toy preferences reflect hormonally influenced behavioral and cognitive biases which are sculpted by social processes into the sex differences seen in monkeys and humans.’”

    “Sculpted by”? That’s an interesting choice of words. That seems to make sense except for a few things.

    How does a monkey know what vehicles are supposed to be? Wasn’t the first vehicle like a car made in the late 1800s? I don’t know how a monkey would understand that this was invented and that men drove them initially etc. That wasn’t that long ago. I understand the female monkey holding the baby doll. That seems to make more sense. Are board games supposed to be for girls or boys? It would be sad if monkeys started playing with guns over garden tools.

    1. I don’t think a monkey needs to know what a car is to find a car toy very interesting. The interest needn’t stem from an association between real cars and the toy car. Even very young humans aren’t capable of making that connection. I think it likely that the attraction is due to underlying stimuli. The toy car is novel looking, smelling and tactile-wise and does things it’s never seen before.

  11. I do believe there’s some innate sexual difference combined with environmental influence, along with significant individual variation (yeah, like a lot of traits), but even looking at the list of toys in that one figure, I notice difficulties in classifying toys. For example, when I was growing up, we still had some of the old GI Joes and a Six Million Dollar Man. They were about a foot tall and had changeable outfits. Because I was a boy, those toys were ‘action figures’. Whereas my cousin, who played with Barbies, that were also about a foot tall with changeable outfits, was playing with dolls. Are soldiers just a subset of dolls to have a boys only category? Or are they referring to the lead/plastic army men as soldiers, and leaving out ‘action figures’? (And in that case, were my daughter’s Polly Pockets dolls or action figures?)

    Then there’s the splitting hairs over ‘Tools’ and ‘Garden Tools’ (or just about anything that would count as a tool in the general sense). Or how to differentiate between play-doh and art? Or should play-doh and blocks go together as ‘building’ toys, along with things like Legos, Tinker Toys, etc.? And it seems a bit weird to have ‘telephone’ which skews to girls only, but leave out the conceptually very similar walkie talkies, which I would imagine skew to boys only. In other words, is there really a significant difference if we just lumped them both together as ‘communication’ toys?

    Maybe I should go read the paper.

    1. I had the bionic man and the bionic woman. The bionic man was cool because you could look through his bionic eye.

  12. Based on my experience with my kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews and memories from my own childhood, the choices are not from socialization or outside influence from anyone, but made by the child based on its own internal brain structure. Brain structure comes from DNA but pre- natal influences from the mother can affect the growth ad can post natal influences. Arguments are made about how much influence there us from each, but the way I see it, the choices come from inside, not outside.

    1. I agree. I see that choices are primarily made from within. There are some pressures from some parents and peers, but the healthier families raise kids to make their own choices; whether it be for toys, sexual preference, or musical or culinary tastes.

  13. My son and I are quite similar. We both played army with toy guns, loved LEGO, Star Wars, G I Joe, and other typical boys things. We also both had favorite stuffed animals (he made (sewed) blankets and pillows for his) both loved the easy bake oven (but I didn’t get one, just played with my sister’s) and I had both a cabbage patch kid and a care bear, (can’t remember if he had dolls) while he had a toy kitchen set. N=2 may not be terribly significant but not forcing your child into your preferred gender roles is, regardless of your ideology. We are both straight males who were interested in a wider range of toys and activities, which we were allowed to choose or ignore. Worked for us!

    1. My dad (who will be 78 in March) had an easy back oven. I can’t remember if I was interested in such a thing. I probably was but was discouraged because of the mess it could make or that they thought I’d burn myself on the light bulb – all this would be true of me.

      I always wanted to play with lego but the results were disastrous and discouraging. Same with my mechano set. I’m not the kind of person who can visualize things and build them. I used to build houses with doors that opened into walls. I had a friend who excelled at lego. He’s an architect now.

        1. Easy Bake ovens weren’t introduced until 1963. I remember having one circa 1965 or so.

          How did your father have one growing up? He would have been 21 years old when the ovens first came out.

          1. There were lots of toy ovens that predated the easy bake. It was probably one of those. I know it wasn’t a stove but an actual toy oven. I just assumed they were all called easy bake.

  14. The rhesus study follows an earlier study of vervet monkeys that has become a favorite punching bag of Cornelia Fine et al. (I burned up most of the goodwill I once had at Phar*ngula arguing for a straightforward interpretation of the data in the vervet paper, a most frustrating and disillusioning experience.)

    Gerianne M. Alexander and Melissa Hines, “Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus).” Evolution and Human Behavior 23 (2002) 467–479.

    1. I see our posts (mine at #16) making much the same points crossed. Good!

      I also pointed out that the monkey photo our host includes seems to come from Alexander’s and Hines’ original, unreferenced vervet study.

  15. Some clarification on the early paragraphs may be useful (unless I have screwed up, which is entirely possible).

    The first monkey toy preference paper concerned vervets and was published in 2002 by Alexander and Hines, the same Hines involved in this meta-analysis.

    The photo is of vervets (which have black faces) not rhesus monkeys (pink faces), although it’s not very clear here. But it appears to come from Alexander and Hines publication. See thumbnail here:

    Further, the vervet study had attracted much scepticism and criticism, so when Hassett, et al published their rhesus study in 2008 H+A were much relieved. See:

    Commentary: Monkeys, girls, boys and toys: A confirmation Comment on “Sex differences in toy preferences: Striking parallels between monkeys and humans”

    Finally, Dominic is correct. The Woburn ‘experiment’ was from the TV program Horizon, not a scientific study.

        1. I wasn’t but holy crap that was Mike from Breaking Bad when he was young (the person who is not John Lithgow).

      1. Hi Diana

        I’ve followed your posts with interest. You mention playing with Action Figures as opposed to dolls, but not HOW you played with them. That matters.

        As someone with a longer ‘lived experience’ than most here, I remember toy soldiers made of lead. Perhaps two inches in height, they couldn’t be be cuddled. You could fight battles with them, however. Action figures would, plausibly, seem merely to be a development of this.

        On the matter raised earlier of peer pressure: boys being more averse to girls’ stuff than are girls to boys’ stuff. This seems to be a real phenomenon. Boys are reported to be more averse to reading girls’ stories, for example, than vice versa.

        It would be interesting (without ideological overrides) to know why.

        1. LOL do you really think I was cuddling my R2-D2 action figure? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in any gender since they aren’t exactly cuddly. Action figures are for action! I put Luke, R2-D2, and C-3PO into the Landspeeder and drove to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters! However, the study never mentions “how” one plays with toys just “what” toys were played with. I think there is a lot of complication with how that is hard to tease out of gender.

          Honestly, I think the boys being adverse is pretty clear – they are considered wussies and girl stuff is wussy stuff. That’s been part of our culture for ages and it’s still there (throw like a girl, run like a girl).

          1. “Action figures are for action!” Thanks for clarifying that!

            Next you’ll be admitting that you had no interest in Cabbage Patch Dolls!

            You are a wonderful outlier and we much appreciate you as such.

            1. Cabbage Patch dolls were after my time. I don’t think I’m an outlier at all. I think perhaps people should look at me and other women and think maybe their data isn’t as conclusive as they think. For example, the female monkeys carrying sticks more often than male monkeys is just assumed to be mothering behaviour. No science behind it, just an assumption and everyone nods and says, “sounds legit”. Is that accepted in science anywhere else?

              1. “I don’t think I’m an outlier at all.”

                Doesn’t matter what you think, the overwhelming evidence from toy sales to parental anecdotes (as reported here and elsewhere) is that boys and girls prefer different toys.

                The actual question is to what extent is this innate or socialisation. Your personal preferences have little to do with this.

                On the chimp study, I have no firm opinion (I am not a chimp expert), I simply reported it as relevant here. Good to spread stuff around, right?

              2. Ok so you just said that I’m an outlier. Yet then you went on in your second paragraph to explain that we don’t know how much socialization has to do with choices. I think I’m sensing bias especially since the studies are hardly overwhelming.

        2. I get what you’re saying. Action figures never saw “action”. They sat on a shelf or were used as markers in military games like Tobruk and Panzer Leader or they may have been something to be transported.

          That’s how it was for me, but I was attracted to toys requiring assembly. Lincoln logs, Erector sets, latch rugs. We couldn’t afford Legos.

      1. This is one of the (many) things I cherish about this site!

        At the back of my mind I knew there was a third relevant study (not the BBC one), but I couldn’t remember what. Here it is, a long-term study of chimps in the wild:

        “Sex differences in chimpanzees’ use of sticks as play objects resemble those of children”

        “…we found that chimpanzees used sticks in four main ways: as probes to investigate holes potentially containing water or honey; during aggression, either as props in displays or as weapons (throwing or hitting) in aggression towards conspecifics or other species; during solitary or social play; and in a behavior we term ‘stick-carrying’.

        Among juveniles, ‘stick-carrying’ (for no apparent purpose) is much more frequent among females than males. This, they suggest, may be proto-infant carrying behaviour:

        “We suggest instead that sex differences in stick-carrying are related to a greater female interest in infant care, with stick-carrying being a form of play-mothering (i.e. carrying sticks like mother chimpanzees carrying infants).”

  16. Point #6 in the post: “in no case did the significance of the temporal relationship drop below 0.103”

    That’s not really relevant; the relevant thing to look at here is whether the magnitude of the effect stayed constant, not the p-value. The p value depends on sample size, and more modern tests probably use bigger sample sizes than older tests. Also, there is a large publication bias that will tend to keep p-values from decreasing below 0.05.

  17. My wife and I raised a boy and a girl. The absurdity of the blank slate argument is apparent to nearly all such parents, I think.

  18. Same has been true of our dogs. The females always play with the fluffy toys and the males destroy them and prefer hard sticks and balls. Perhaps it is true for all animals to have innate gender preference selection?

    1. I haven’t found that with female dogs. I’ve had males that are careful with their toys only to have some bitch come in and rip them up in front of their horrified eyes. My dog now is very nice with toys to a point that she gets bored and wants to rip it up. I think this has a lot more to do with dog breeding than gender. My dogs are labs….some are field trial dogs like my current dog so soft mouthed, others are just disasters that you wouldn’t want retrieving anything.

  19. It’s great to see that there are other women who didn’t conform to playing with the socially approved “girl toys” when they were young. I’m the older of two girls; my sister played with the toys she was “supposed” to play with, however, I did not. I wanted primarily books and building blocks, though that was in the 1950s, unfortunately before Legos. At least my parents gave me some Lincoln Logs and brick-type pieces. While they were older parents and did not tend to try to force us in any direction, they did make several attempts to give me dolls, most of which mysteriously disappeared (I buried them in the garden). The only one that was of any use was the Betsy-wetsy, which “drank” water from a bottle. That could then be used as a squirt gun, for which I think my sister never forgave me. I spent many hours up in an apple tree reading or building dams, etc., in mud puddles. “Girl toys” were of absolutely no interest whatsoever: I found them utterly boring.

  20. I think the difficulty with trying to suss out environmental influence is that it likely works both ways. I.e., you can train a child away from what would otherwise be their natural instincts by engineering the environment in a particular way. (I think this was the case with me in early childhood – I was a girl who mostly played with other boys in preschool and kindergarten, not because I loved blocks but because I had all brothers, I think. I clearly remember feeling intimidated in preschool when all the girls would run to the play house and play ‘house’ together, and everybody already knew all the rules, which were completely foreign to me.) This does not necessarily prove that environment was the ’cause’ of the original state of affairs, as you could just as easily say modifying the environment was the unusual situation (an analogy would be that while modifying the environment to provide early therapy is effective in treating autism, we do not say that autism is caused by the environment, due to a lack-of-therapy-ness).

    Anecdotally, I think children who grow up to be gay and / or transgender provide more support for the idea that differences are innate. While my anecdotal sample size is small, I’ve known two boys, from early childhood, who grew up to be gay and transgender. They were both from families of all boys and presumably their environments were quite similar, yet their toy preferences differed from their brothers very early on.

  21. Love the monkey studies. I have to admit, my initial reaction was “No kidding!!!” I never would have guessed. Meaning I did think there’s a significant different in toy choice by sex amongst human kids, but I would’ve attributed most of it to cultural/social factors.

    1. My first child is a boy, and second a girl. What I saw in their play was that the boy was most interested in toys that had some kind of action; cars, magnets, or something that could be physically swung about. My girl was more interested in relationships between the toys. She liked soft toys and still does, but even when playing with the “gender-neutral” type of toys she would give voices to them, and they would always be interacting, making plans together and so on.

      My main objection to toy companies making gender-specific toys is that the girls’ toys and their components always seemed to be so small – Polly Pocket, Sylvania Families and their ilk were forever losing members sucked up into the vacuum cleaner.

  22. Related, there’s a paper which looks at difference between boy and girl in interest between people and things. Average age was 36 hrs old so not much time for the patriarchy to have worked its pernicious ways..

    Sex differences in human neonatal social perception, Jennifer Connellan et al, Infant Behavior & Development (2000).

    Abstract: Sexual dimorphism in sociability has been documented in humans. The present study aimed to ascertain whether the sexual dimorphism is a result of biological or socio-cultural differences between the two sexes. 102 human neonates, who by definition have not yet been influenced by social and cultural factors, were tested to see if there was a difference in looking time at a face (social object) and a mobile (physical-mechanical object). Results showed that the male infants showed a stronger interest in the physical-mechanical mobile while the female infants showed a stronger interest in the face. The results of this research clearly demonstrate that sex differences are in part biological in

  23. Unlike the parents you spoke with, my observation of young children, especially infants and toddlers, does not support strong gender preference in the choice or use of toys. Infant activities seem less influenced by gender and more tied to sensory, motor and cognitive developmental sequences. Toddler boys do play with dolls, give hugs and kisses to their stuffed animals, take pots and pans out of cupboards, and enjoy house keeping tools like brooms and mops. Girls like building with blocks of any kind and they certainly do play with cars, trucks, train sets and wheeled toys. Both girls and boys enjoy playing dress-up; it was my experience that it was as likely that a girl wore the firefighter hat and coat as it was that a boy chose the pink princess dress. Imaginary play seems gender neutral as well. I did not see boys avoiding the playhouse or play store. Now that children see fewer gender divisions in the adult world, boys choosing the play kitchen is not at all unusual.

    By Kindergarten and 1st grade, I did notice gender separation. However given the gender bias of the culture and the lack of differentiation in younger children, social pressure seems a better explanation than evolution. I admit that I base my conclusions on informal observation, but it is observation of hundreds of children over several decades.

    (…and yes, my daughter made guns out of everything – the can opener was a ray gun for a game of space invaders – even though I never bought toy guns)

  24. In my case, growing up in the 1960s as the middle child close in age to two brothers, I’m certain that I showed more interest in race cars, Legos, Lincoln Logs, and Tinker Toys than I would have if I had grown up with two sisters instead. Having ‘boy appropriate’ toys in the house meant that I had the opportunity to share in playing with them. If someone had observed me having so much fun playing with Hot Wheels and collecting Matchbox cars, they would have thought I was some type of tomboy, or that I was not the least bit interested in typical girls’ toys.

    However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. I loved my Barbie dolls, and loved anything to do with princesses or dressing up or putting on make-up.

    This is all to say that one’s interest in different toys is definitely going to be influenced by one’s siblings.

    As for parents who try to be gender-neutral about toys – well, they run up against Big Toy Inc. – especially Walt Disney and their Princess Franchise (the official name). They dedicate significant amounts of marketing to entice 4 year old girls to dedicate their lives to be Arielle, Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), Rapunzel, Jasmine, and on and on. What parent can win out over Disney? If even parents try to keep Disney, Inc. out of their home, the girls will be exposed to the princess stuff at their friends and at school. And then there is My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Barbie, etc. I don’t see how a parent can win at this.

    Another observation on hormones and toys – I had a pet rabbit about 20 years ago, who I had neutered when he was 3 years old. I believe I did it to see if it would cut back on his excessive chewing on everything. It did not. HOWEVER – Mr. Bunny suddenly began to keep his chew toys in a nice neat pile next to his food bowl. Prior to the neutering, he just left his chew toys scattered about his pen. I observed that lack of testosterone had unleashed his inner housekeeper. I was so proud of him!

  25. I have long noticed a greater “ambiguity” (trend, anyway) in one direction – the women who played with “male” toys are an example of this. It *seems* that there are more occurences of females doing “male” things than males doing “female”.) I have seen some indication that people have looked at that asymmetry, but do not know what has come of it …

  26. When i was younger i much preferred trucks, cars and dinosaurs over a barbie or kitchen toys. I tried to fit in with stereotypes as i grew up and started to notice them by playing with barbies but i never understood or enjoyed it. My parents never bought any specific toy for me, they made sure i was making my own decision on what i was playing with. I am now 20, not transgender or LGBT, as some say would be the reasoning behind me toy preference. I would say i am a very grounded woman for my age, maybe that has something to do with this ambiguity i had as a child. I feel less confined to social norms on the ways i should look, act, and feel. Which is a good way to be in my eyes, too many women and men feel trapped and confined to what they think they should be. Maybe these issues begin when we are young and depend on what toys we play with..?

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