Half-Baked Potato Head; making too much of too little

In my last posting, I wrote about a study* that compared playing with Mrs. Potato Head to playing with Barbie.  The study found that girls exposed to Barbie for a brief amount of time were less likely to aspire to professional careers than girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head.

The study "exposed" 37 girls between the ages of 4 to 7 years old to either a Mrs. Potato Head or Barbie.  Teh girls were all from the Pacific Northwest.  The "exposure" lasted for five minutes.

I would have found the study to be humorous in its use of Barbie, a doll the authors describe as sexualized with many professional aspirations and Mrs. Potato Head who appears, to my knowledge, to not have any articulated any career aspirations.  Unfortunately, the article has been picked up by the press and touted as proof that Barbie has a negative impact on girls’ aspirations.

As those of you who read me know, I have been a long time champion of gender neutral packaging and merchandising.  In fact, I have run conferences on the question:  “Do the toys that girls play with as children have an impact on their adult professional and academic choices?”  I take the subject seriously but I don’t like this kind of research and here is why:

  1.  37 girls, all from the same part of the country, seem like a pretty limited group of subjects.  Can we really make any determinations from such a small, homogenous sampling?
  2. The use of Mrs. Potato Head is an odd choice.  Mrs. Potato Head was seen by the authors as a neutral choice.   The notion that Mrs. Potato Head is neutral is of course a false notion as she comes freighted with her own messages.  After all, she is married (unlike Barbie) and has never verbalized any career aspirations.  It would have been more interesting to have compared Barbie to American Girl.
  3. Five minutes of being exposed to a toy and then determining its impact is questionable in that it implies that these toys have some sort of totemic power.  Think about it, if you want to ruin a girl’s career choices, just expose her to Barbie for five minutes.  If you want your daughter to become a nuclear scientist, just expose her to Mrs. Potato Head for five minutes.

Anecdotally, I know many women who played with Barbie as children and are ensconced in well paying and satisfying careers.  The fact that I know these women, however, seems to be just a little less validating of any theory on dolls and careers than the study cited. 

I think girls deserve better than this type of research; in fact we all do.  What do you think?


One thought

  1. Thanks Richard for this reminder — a call to reality. So many of these pseudoscientific studies are amped up, even to the point of affecting policy. Without any sense of control, concern for sample size, correlation vs. causation, separating long-term effects from short-term, etc. Seems studies are valued more for headline-making power than actual predictive power.

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