Ivy Wong talks about her research into children's colour preference.
Gates scholar Ivy Wong was interviewed this week on BBC Radio Four about her research into children’s colour preferences and gender identity.
Ivy , who is studying for a PhD in Social and Developmental Psychology, was interviewed for a programme called ‘Fighting the Power of Pink’. She said her research was the result of previous work on people with gender identity disorder, who were found to be more likely to have a preference for pink if they thought they were girls.
Ivy works with parents and children to find out when exactly the sex differences in preferences for pink and blue emerge, what causes these sex differences (factors include gender understanding, prenatal hormonesmeasured by digit ratio, and various demographic and socialisation information), and whether pink and blue affect children’s and parents’ reactions to sex-typed toys. The children are first seen when they are 20-39 months old and then followed up about six months after the first test.
Ivy says the initial idea of studying pink and blue came from a controversy ignited by a study claiming to have found evolutionary evidence and also from knowing that very little is known about the phenomenon although it is often talked about. She says: “As our lab group discussed the matter, I learned an intereting fact, which is that back in history, pink was the colour for men, as it was considered the more dominant colour, and blue was for women, as it was considered pretty!
“When I was brainstorming ideas for my PhD topic, this issue flashed back. I got to learn that not only do we not know why girls like pink, boys like blue, or whether such preferences have any effect on children’s toy choice, we also don’t know when they start to develop such differences. The pink and blue issue, I thought, would be a good test of whether the sex differences are just socialised, and if it is, whether or not a socialised gender difference could be and had been taken as granted just because it is so prevalent.”
The research is still ongoing and more than 100 families have been involved.
Ivy says past research showed that from around age two to age seven, children go through different stages of gender conceptualisation. Previous findings and her present study suggest that sex differences in preferences for pink and blue also happen to be likely to emerge the same time children start to learn about gender. She says: “Our study is not yet finished, but we believe gender identity may hasten or exaggerate the sex differences in colour preferences, although this relationship may be stronger in one sex than the other.
“There are various reasons to believe boys’ and girls’ different preferences for pink and blue are partly related to their gender understanding. Gender is one core schema by which people learn and process information. Past research has shown that children who know their own gender and understand that gender is stable over time also tend to be more sex-typed and know more about gender stereotypes. One study labelled yellow and brown balloons as “for girls” or “for boys”, and the boys and girls then chose to play with the balloon in the colour “appropriate” for their sex, although yellow and brown normally don’t show any sex differences. Also, boys and girls with gender identity disorder show reversed preferences for pink and blue.”
Ivy adds that she sees no evidence that these differences are “hardwired” in the brain as has been suggested by other research. “As far as I know, there is not yet strong evidence that girls’ and boys’ different colour preferences are innate,” she says. “I believe the media sometimes selectively report studies which found “innate” evidence, perhaps because this kind of evidence challenges the core belief in gender equality, which would mean it would generate more tension and attention. We must admit that there are innate influences on human behaviour and gender differences, but then these influences are often more specific and complicated than generally known and cannot be summarised by single studies. The same is true for social influences.”
Picture credit: Tina Phillips and www.freedigitalphotos.net