Boy monkeys are from Mars, girl monkeys are from Venus

I thought I’d share an interesting study I read about in a magazine not long ago. I’m not typically one interested in psychology but am sure you’ll appreciate how simple and cool this research was, and that’s not just because it involved toys and vervet monkeys.

Gerianne M. Alexander (Texas A&M Uni) and Melissa Hines (then at City Uni London) were interested in whether differences in toy preference by boys and girls were the result of innate biological differences in our brains or ‘gender socialisation’. In this context, gender socialisation refers to how cultural influences or a child’s upbringing might affect which toys they choose to play with. So, for example, girls liking barbie dolls and boys liking army men could simply be because that’s what their parents buy them or that’s what all the other kids like playing with.

The experiment involved 44 young female vervet monkeys, and 44 young male monkeys. Individuals were given six toys to play with: an orange ball, a toy police car, a rag doll, a red cooking pot, a stuffed dog and a story book. The time males and females spent in contact with each toy was recorded.

Wikimedia Commons: Joe Castleman (Gyrofrog)

Males spent more time ‘playing’ with the ball and police car than females. Females preferred the rag doll and cooking pot. Both sexes spent similar amounts of time with the gender neutral toys, the book and stuffed dog. Because the monkeys had never seen these toys before and are not subject to social pressures associated with gender identity, these results suggest that there may be some underlying biological or evolutionary explanation for sex-differences in toy preference.

One suggestion made was that females prefer toys that allow them to practice their mothering skills, some female vervets were seen treating the rag doll as if it were an infant monkey. Males, however, might prefer mechanical toys or objects that invite movement because this style of playing is related to skills necessary for hunting and finding mates.

I’m not totally sure what to make of the evolutionary explanation for why boys and girls prefer different toys and how this relates to human children today, but perhaps I can blame biology for still having a few hundred toy cars on the top shelf of my wardrobe.                                                                             Wikimedia Commons: Larinha2015

Check out the original paper,  Alexander, G.M., and Hines M. (2002) Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evolution and Human Behavior 23: 467 – 479

Wikimedia Commons: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis


One Response to “Boy monkeys are from Mars, girl monkeys are from Venus”

  1. zoe says:

    oh cool! the gender debate is always a fierce force in arguing about nature and nurture and social constructs, so it’s really interesting to see some research into it. i hope there’s more!