It’s not that monkeys with toys aren’t cute…

Hey, I’m the first in line to read about monkeys.  But seriously, how many times to researchers have to see if genders really do prefer different toys? 

As previously demonstrated, there are small differences, according to the New Scientist:

Wallen’s team looked at 11 male and 23 female rhesus monkeys. In general the males preferred to play with wheeled toys, such as dumper trucks, over plush dolls, while female monkeys played with both kinds of toys.

This conclusion may upset those psychologists who insist that sex differences – for example the tendency of boys to favour toy soldiers and girls to prefer dolls – depend on social factors, not innate differences.

Are there still psychologists who would describe themselves this way?  No matter.  Actually, what really chafes me about this story is that the study doesn’t mention the presence of faces on one set of toys and not the other.  Is it helpful to determine that a whopping eleven male monkeys “in general” naturally love trucks?  Or is this not the issue; is it rather possibly the case that at very young ages, different genders display slightly different degrees of eye contact, facial recognition, and facial expressions, studies of which Anne Fausto-Sterling so ably surveys in Sexing the Body.  Small differences early on get exacerbated even in the first few days of nursing, so that separating the “innate” from the “social” seems, at this stage, quaint.  A few comments on the story are of the “I knew it” variety, and I groan to imagine that feeding this bizarre interest in the toy question will lend some of my students to celebrating dualism.  Happily, most readers seem to notice complexity in the results!  But seriously, dear readers, what’s up with the repeated toy-preference research?  (And if this is what gets grant money, how do I get in on this?)

Thanks to Christine Daigle for the heads-up!

8 thoughts on “It’s not that monkeys with toys aren’t cute…

  1. What bugs me is what JJ mentioned off-blog: exactly which toy soldiers have wheels? But you’ve also given me fodder for an ongoing interest of mine in when many ways that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are used, even by feminist scholars. Once even we start talking about the gender of monkeys, I think it’s pretty clear that usage of these terms is very complicated and messy. And yeah, there is an amazing fascination with toy preferences. Though now I sort of get it. I’ve seen fellow parents ripping dolls out of the hands of their boys and giving them footballs, taking footballs away from the girls, etc. Perhaps it takes a lot of bad science to shore up that belief in big natural differences when you’ve been working so hard to make those differences appear!

  2. I wonder if there are wheels in the monkeys’ environment and, if so, what they might be associated with.

  3. Monkeys also like to play with poop, so I’m not sure this study is telling us much.

    I’d like to know if psychologists ever consider the fact that at a very early age we figure out that men and women are physically different. I’ve got an outy. Women have innies. At the risk of sounding vulgar, my whole life I’ve had something different to play with. So, if there is something new and different to play with, I’ll probably be more interested in that.

    Of course, that doesn’t explain why I have a collection of 20+ (and growing) teddy bears, and my sister hates all of them. Oh well, at least I don’t like to play with my poop like a monkey :-P

  4. Good laughs, y’all, thanks! Not a lot of wheels in monkeys’ environments, but then, there weren’t pianos in mankind’s environment, yet abilities and preferences emerge. I’m not actually faulting the science as bad, and with the researchers, I tend to believe there are differences pre-birth between some males and some females. But my puzzlement at the toy thing remains.

  5. In all honesty, I can’t believe that studies like this are still being funded! Who gives a flying rat’s ass about which toys are preferred by which gender of primate? I don’t find that information particularly interesting or relevant to anything. Shame on you, monkey-toy-playing-researchers!

  6. sure no one cares…unless it had opposite results…then every feminist would be applauding….

    but when the results are not what you…WANT…moanings!!…

    what a load…bwaahahahahahahaha!!….

  7. I could understand stupid reporting like this in the Science section of the New York Times. (Why they hired that incompetent hack, John Tierney, as their primary science reporter is simply beyond me.) But New Scientist is published by Reed Elsevier, which is one of the largest and most prestigious academic publishers in the world.

    Knocking this article down is like an exercise in Intro to Philosophy of Science. First, the sample size is ridiculously small. In Table 3 of the accepted manuscript, the researchers provide means and standard deviations for the frequency and duration of male and female monkeys interactions with plush and wheeled toys. In every case except one (frequency of female interactions with wheeled toys), the standard deviation is significantly larger than the mean; with respect to a single type of toy, the male mean is well within one standard deviation of the female mean (often within half of a standard deviation) and vice-versa; and with respect to sex, the plush mean is well within one standard deviation of the wheeled mean in every case except one (duration of male interaction with plush toys). So, second, the normal distribution curves here practically overlap.

    Third, while the researchers point out in the discussion that there’s basically no possibility for sex differences in maternal treatment, they neglect to consider the possibility of sex differences in treatment by the researchers themselves. Fourth, in the discussion, they draw conclusions about female vs. male preferences for `rough and tumble play’, postulate in utero androgen exposure as the cause of the difference they claim to have discovered, suggest that `[human] children may socialize adults to provide toys facilitating their preferred activities’, and connect all this up to different career preferences, despite the fact that they gathered absolutely no data related to any of these four claims in any way at all.

    Fifth, they insist on referring to the wheeled toys as `masculine’, despite the fact that the wheeled toys included a toy shopping cart, which they suggest in the discussion should be classified as feminine, and a wagon, which I would suggest is a gender-neutral toy. I would also suggest that only one of their six plush toys (a Raggedy-Ann doll) would be considered `feminine’, and the other five (Winnie-the-Pooh, Scooby-Doo, and various toy animals) be considered gender-neutral.

    It’s like a textbook example of a bad experiment being published because, if you tilt your head and squint, you can almost pretend it supports stereotypes about differences between boys and girls. (There’s your answer, CTJen.)

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