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.”
LoBue, 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.