Skip to main content

Gender Labels on Gender-Neutral Colors: Do they Affect Children’s Color Preferences and Play Performance?

Abstract

Gender-typed color preferences are widely documented, and there has been increasing concern that they affect children’s play preferences. However, it is unclear whether such color preferences exist across cultures, how they have emerged, and how gender color-coding affects performance. Chinese preschoolers (n = 126) aged 59 to 94 months were tested. First, we assessed their gender-typed color preferences using forced-choice tasks with color cards and pictures of neutral toys in gender-typed colors. Second, we tested if gender labels could affect color preferences by labeling two gender-neutral colors as gender-typed and assessed children’s liking for them using a rating task and a forced-choice task with pictures of neutral toys in the labeled colors. Third, we assigned children a tangram puzzle (i.e., a puzzle using geometric pieces) painted either in the gender-appropriate or gender-inappropriate color and measured the number of pieces they completed and their speed. Results showed that Chinese children exhibited the same gender-typed color preferences as Western children did. Moreover, applying gender labels amplified a gender difference in color preferences, thus providing direct and strong evidence for the social-cognitive pathway underlying gender-typed preferences. Finally, color-coding as gender-appropriate or -inappropriate had no impact on performance but the gender labels improved boys’ performance. These results add to knowledge on how gender-related information affects children’s responses to the social world and suggest that the current gender color divide should be reconsidered.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

References

  1. Alexander, G. M. (2003). An evolutionary perspectives of sex-typed toy preferences: Pink, blue and the brain. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32, 7–14. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1021833110722.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. Ambady, N., Shih, M., Kim, A., & Pittinsky, T. L. (2001). Stereotype susceptibility in children: Effects of identity activation on quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 12, 385–390. https://doi.org/10.1111/ 1467-9280.00371.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Antill, J. K., Goodnow, J. J., Russell, G., & Cotton, S. (1996). The influence of parents and family context on children’s involvement in household tasks. Sex Roles, 34(3), 215–236. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01544297.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Armenta, B. E. (2010). Stereotype boost and stereotype threat effects: The moderating role of ethnic identification. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(1), 94–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017564.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. Arthur, A. E., Bigler, R. S., & Ruble, D. N. (2009). An experimental test of the effects of gender constancy on sex typing. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 104, 427–446. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2009.08.002.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Auster, C. J., & Mansbach, C. S. (2012). The gender marketing of toys: An analysis of color and type of type on the Disney store website. Sex Roles, 67, 375–388. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-012-0177-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Basow, S. A. (1992). Gender stereotypes and roles (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Bem, S. L. (1981). Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review, 88, 354–364. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.88.4.354.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Black, R. W., Tomlinson, B., & Korobkova, K. (2016). Play and identity in gendered LEGO franchises. International Journal of Play, 5, 64–76. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2016.1147284.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Blakemore, J. E. O., & Centers, R. E. (2005). Characteristics of boys' and girls' toys. Sex Roles, 53(9–10), 619–633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-005-7729-0.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Caldera, Y. M., Huston, A. C., & O’Brien, M. (1989). Social interactions and play patterns of parents and toddlers with feminine, masculine and neutral toys. Child Development, 60, 70–76. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131072.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Casey, B. M., Andrews, N., Schindler, H., Kersh, J. E., Samper, A., & Copley, J. (2008). The development of spatial skills through interventions involving block building activities. Cognition and Instruction, 26, 269–309. https://doi.org/10.1080/07370000802177177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Chattopadhyay, A., Gorn, G. J., & Drake, P. (2010). Differences and similarities in hue preferences between Chinese and Caucasians. In A. Krishna (Ed.), Sensory marketing: Research on the sensuality of products (pp. 219–239). New York: Taylor and Francis Group.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Chen, E. S. L., & Rao, N. (2011). Gender socialization in Chinese kindergartens: Teachers’ contributions. Sex Roles, 64, 103–116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9873-4.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  15. Cherney, I. D., & Dempsey, J. (2010). Young children’s classification, stereotyping, and play behavior for gender neutral and ambiguous toys. Journal of Educational Psychology, 30(6), 651–669. https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2010.498416.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Cherney, I. D., & London, K. (2006). Gender-linked differences in the toys, television shows, computer games, and outdoor activities of 5-to 13-year-old children. Sex Roles, 54, 717–726. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9037-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Chiu, S. W., Gervan, S., Fairbrother, C., Johnson, L. L., Owen-Anderson, A. F. H., Bradley, S. J., … Zucker, K. J. (2006). Sex-dimorphic color preference in children with gender identity disorder: A comparison to clinical and community controls. Sex Roles, 55, 385–395. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9089-9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Cohen, P. N. (2013). Children’s gender and parents’ color preferences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42, 393–397. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-9951-5.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. Cohen-Kettenis, P. T., & Pfäfflin, F. (2003). Transgenderism and intersexuality in childhood and adolescence. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Cunningham, S. J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). The colour of gender stereotyping. British Journal of Psychology, 102, 598–614. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02023.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Davies, D. R. (1986). Children’s performance as a function of sex-typed labels. British Journal of Social Psychology, 25, 173–175. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.1986.tb00717.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Davies, D. R. (1989). The effects of gender-typed labels on children’s performance. Current Psychology: Research & Reviews, 8, 267–272. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02686725.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Del Giudice, M. (2012). The 20th century reversal of pink-blue gender coding: A scientific urban legend? [letter to the Editor]. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1321–1323. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-0002-z.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. Del Giudice, M. (2017). Pink, blue, and gender: An update. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46, 1555–1563. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-1024-3.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  25. Ellis, L., & Ficek, C. (2001). Color preferences according to gender and sexual orientation. Personality and Individual Differences, 31, 1375–1379. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(00)00231-2.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Erdfelder, E., Faul, F., & Buchner, A. (1996). GPower: A general power analysis program. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 28(1), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03203630.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Fagot, B. I., & Leinbach, M. D. (1989). The young child’s gender schema: Environmental input, internal organization. Child Development, 60, 663–672. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130731.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Fulcher, M., & Hayes, A. R. (2017). Building a pink dinosaur: The effects of gendered construction toys on girls’ and boys’ play. Sex Roles. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0806-3.

  29. Gold, D., & Berger, C. (1978). Problem solving performance of young boys and girls as a function of task-appropriateness and sex-identity. Sex Roles, 4, 183–195. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00287499.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Goldberg, S. (2017, January). Why we put a transgender girl on the cover of National Geographic. National Geographic: Gender Revolution. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/editors-note-gender/.

  31. Green, V. A., Bigler, R., & Catherwood, D. (2004). The variability and flexibility of gender-typed toy play: A close look at children’s behavioral responses to counterstereotypic models. Sex Roles, 78, 371–386. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:SERS.0000049227.05170.aa.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Halim, M. L., & Ruble, D. (2010). Gender identity and stereotyping in early and middle childhood. In J. Chrisler & D. McCreary (Eds.), Handbook of gender research in psychology (pp. 495–525). New York: Springer.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  33. Hargreaves, D. J., Bates, H. M., & Foot, J. M. C. (1985). Sex-typed labeling affects task performance. British Journal of Social Psychology, 24, 153–155. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8309.1985.tb00674.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  34. Hidi, S. (2000). An interest researcher’s perspective: The effects of extrinsic and intrinsic factors on motivation. In S. Sansone & J. M. Harackiewicz (Eds.), Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: The search for optimal motivation and performance (pp. 309–339). San Diego: Academic Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  35. Hines, M. (2010). Sex-related variation in human behavior and the brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14, 448–456. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.07.005.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  36. Hurlbert, A. C., & Ling, Y. (2007). Biological components of sex differences in color preference. Current Biology, 17, 623–625. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.022.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Hyde, J. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60, 581–592. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. Ickes, W., Gesn, P. R., & Graham, T. (2000). Gender differences in empathic accuracy: Differential ability or differential motivation? Personal Relationships, 7, 95–109. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167201276007.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Jadva, V., Hines, M., & Golombok, S. (2010). Infants’ preferences for toys, colors and shapes: Sex differences and similarities. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 1261–1273. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-010-9618-z.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. Jirout, J. J., & Newcombe, N. S. (2015). Building blocks for developing social skills: Evidence from a large, representative U. S. Sample. Psychological Science, 26, 302–310. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614563338.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. Kane, E. W. (2006). “No way my boys are going to be like that!”: Parents’ responses to children’s gender nonconformity. Gender and Society, 20, 149–176. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243205284276.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Kohlberg, L. (1966). A cognitive-developmental analysis of children’s sex-role concepts and attitudes. In E. E. Maccoby (Ed.), The development of sex differences (pp. 82–173). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Lee, J. F. K., & Collins, P. (2008). Gender voices in Hong Kong English textbooks—Some past and current practices. Sex Roles, 59, 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9414-6.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Lee, J., Lee, J. O., & Collins, D. (2009). Enhancing children's spatial sense using tangrams. Childhood Education, 86(2), 92–94. https://doi.org/10.1080/00094056.2010.10523120.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Leinbach, M. D., Hort, B. E., & Fagot, B. I. (1997). Bears are for boys: Metaphorical associations in young children’s gender stereotypes. Cognitive Development, 12, 107–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2014(97)90032-0.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Li, R. Y. H., & Wong, W. I. (2016). Gender-typed play and social abilities in boys and girls: Are they related? Sex Roles, 74, 399–410. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-016-0580-7.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Linn, M. C., & Petersen, A. C. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: A meta-analysis. Child Development, 56, 1479–1498. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130467.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  48. LoBue, V., & DeLoache, J. S. (2011). Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 29, 656–667. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-835X.2011.02027.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Maccoby, E. E., & Jacklin, C. N. (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Martin, C. L., & Halverson, C. F. (1981). A schematic processing model of sex typing and stereotyping in children. Child Development, 52, 1119–1134. https://doi.org/10.2307/1129498.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Martin, C. L., & Ruble, D. (2004). Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 67–70. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00276.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Martin, C. L., Ruble, D. N., & Szkrybalo, J. (2002). Cognitive theories of early gender development. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 903–933. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.128.6.903.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  54. Martin, C. L., DiDonato, M. D., Clary, L., Fabes, R. A., Kreiger, T., Palermo, F., … Hanish, L. (2012). Preschool children with gender normative and gender non-normative peer preferences: Psychosocial and environmental correlates. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 831–847. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-012-9950-6.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  55. Masters, J. C., Ford, M. E., Arend, R., Grotevant, H. D., & Clark, L. V. (1979). Modeling and labeling as integrated determinants of children’s sex-typed imitative behavior. Child Development, 50, 364–371. https://doi.org/10.2307/1129411.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Montemayor, R. (1977). Children’s performance in a game and their attraction to it as a function of sex-typed labels. Child Development, 45, 152–156. https://doi.org/10.2307/1127761.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Mulvey, K. L., Miller, B., & Rizzardi, V. (2017). Gender and engineering aptitude: Is the color of science, technology, engineering, and math materials related to children’s performance? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 160, 119–126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.006.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  58. Paoletti, J. B. (1987). Clothing and gender in America: Children’s fashions, 1890-1920. Signs, 13, 136–143. https://doi.org/10.1086/494390.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Paoletti, J. B. (2012). Pink and blue: Telling the boys from the girls in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Picariello, M. L., Greenberg, D., & Pillemer, D. B. (1990). Children’s sex-related stereotyping of colors. Child Development, 61, 1453–1460. https://doi.org/10.2307/1130755.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  61. Pomerleau, A., Bolduc, D., Malcuit, G., & Cossette, L. (1990). Pink or blue: Environmental gender stereotypes in the first two years of life. Sex Roles, 22, 359–367. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00288339.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Ruble, D. N., & Martin, C. (1998). Gender development. In W. Damon & N. Eisenberg (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Social, emotional, and personality development (pp. 933–1016). New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  63. Ruble, D. N., Taylor, L. J., Cyphers, L., Greulich, F. K., Lurye, L. E., & Shrout, P. E. (2007). Effect of gender constancy on age-related changes in gender beliefs. Child Development, 78, 1121–1136. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01056.x.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  64. Saito, M. (1994). A cross-cultural study on color preference in three Asian cities: Comparison between Tokyo, Taipei and Tianjin. Japanese Psychological Research, 36(4), 219–232. https://doi.org/10.4992/psycholres1954.36.219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Saito, M. (1996). A comparative study of color preferences in Japan, China, and Indonesia, with emphasis on the preference for white. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 83, 115–128. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1996.83.1.115.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  66. Serbin, L. A., Powlishta, K. K., & Gulko, J. (1993). The development of sex typing in middle childhood. Monographs of the Society of Research in Child Development, 58(2), 1–74. https://doi.org/10.2307/1166118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Shih, M., Ambady, N., Richeson, J. A., Fujita, K., & Gray, H. M. (2002). Stereotype performance boosts: The impact of self-relevance and the manner of stereotype activation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 638–647. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.83.3.638.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  68. Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10, 80–83. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00111.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women's math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 4–28. https://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.1998.1373.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  70. Sprafkin, C., Serbin, L. A., Denier, C., & Connor, J. M. (1983). Sex-differentiated play: Cognitive consequences and early interventions. In M. B. Liss (Ed.), Social and cognitive skills: Sex roles and child’s play (pp. 167–192). New York: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  72. Stein, A., Pohly, S., & Mueller, E. (1971). The influence of masculine, feminine and neutral tasks on children’s achievement behavior, expectancies of success and attainments values. Child Development, 42, 195–207. https://doi.org/10.2307/1127075.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  73. Sweet, E. V. (2013, August). Same as it ever was? Gender and children's toys over the 20th century. Paper presented at the 108th annual American Sociological Association meeting in New York, NY.

  74. Taylor, C., Clifford, A., & Franklin, A. (2013). Color preferences are not universal. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(4), 1015–1027. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0030273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Thomas, R. M. (1999). Human development theories: Windows on culture. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Van Yperen, N. W. (2003). Task interest and actual performance: The moderating effects of assigned and adopted purpose goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1006–1015. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.6.1006.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  77. Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M. P. (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A metal-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 250–270. https://doi.org/10.1037//0033-2909.117.2.250.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  78. Wachman, R. (2012, March). Lego’s profits rise as it thinks pink. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/mar/01/lego-profits-rise-pink.

  79. Weisgram, E. S., Fulcher, M., & Dinella, L. M. (2014). Pink gives girls permission: Exploring the roles of explicit gender labels and gender-typed colors on preschool children’s toy preferences. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 35, 401–409. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2014.06.004.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Wong, W. I., & Hines, M. (2015a). Effects of gender color-coding on toddlers’ gender-typical toy play. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(5), 1233–1242. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0400-5.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  81. Wong, W. I., & Hines, M. (2015b). Preferences for pink and blue: The development of color preferences as a distinct gender-typed behavior in toddlers. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(5), 1243–1254. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0489-1.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  82. Yu, L., Winter, S., & Xie, D. (2010). The child play behavior and activity questionnaire: A parent-report measure of childhood gender-related behavior in China. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 807–815. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-008-9403-4.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  83. Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H., & Greulich, F. K. (2009). The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology, 45, 668–701. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014053.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  84. Zuckerman, C. (2017, January). Pink and blue: Coloring inside the lines of gender. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/pink-blue-project-color-gender/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fb20170105ngm-gendercolor&utm_campaign=Content&sf49585588=1.

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wang Ivy Wong.

Ethics declarations

This project was approved by the Psychology Departmental Research Ethics Committee at the University of Hong Kong. All children participated with the written consent of their parent. Children’s verbal assent was also obtained prior to the experiment.

Electronic supplementary material

ESM 1

(DOCX 384 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Yeung, S.P., Wong, W.I. Gender Labels on Gender-Neutral Colors: Do they Affect Children’s Color Preferences and Play Performance?. Sex Roles 79, 260–272 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-017-0875-3

Download citation

Keywords

  • Gender labels
  • Gender color-coding
  • Color preferences
  • Play performance
  • Gender differences