Mrs. Potato Head, Barbie and Girls; Weird Science

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I have never paid a lot of attention to Mrs. Potato Head.  She has always seemed pleasant enough with her friendly smile, practical shoes and pocketbook.  She looks like someone’s mom from the 1960’s, a kind of potato version of June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver.”  In fact, she looked a bit like my Mom and I have to say that I sometimes confused them.  “Mrs. Potato Head, I mean Mom, can I go out and play?”

That was why I was surprised that she was hailed as a role model for young girls in a recent study by two psychology professors,  Aurora Sherman of Oregon State and Eileen Zurbriggen at UC Santa Cruz.  The study, “’Boys Can Be Anything”: Effect of Barbie Play on Girls’ Career Cognitions.”

Appearing in the Springer Journal on March 5, 2014, the study’s authors “randomly assigned” girls to play with either a Mrs. Potato Head or Barbie.  The purpose was to determine the impact that playing with the toy would have on their perception of potential career opportunities. 

The study involved 37 girls, all from the Pacific Northwest and all between the ages of 4 to 7.  The girls were "exposed" to either a Barbie or a Mrs. Potato Head for 5 minutes and then ask to indicate career choices.

According to the study “…girls who played with Barbie indicated that they had fewer future career options than boys, whereas girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported a smaller difference between future possible careers for themselves as compared to boys.”

Studies like this become fodder for the press with the findings being touted as an indictment of Barbie and “sexualized” dolls.  It has resulted in headlines like:  “Play with Barbie dolls affects career aspirations for girls.”  In fact, that article quoted one of the authors as stating:  "It's sobering that a few minutes of play with Barbie had an immediate impact on the number of careers that girls saw as possible for themselves…”

I have a number of problems with this study and I will tell you about them in my next posting.

4 thoughts

  1. I ditto the concern of the meaning/purpose of only 37 students. Why was such even published? Curious suggestion is what I might call the “findings.” We do need to know the questions asked, why specific toys were selected, when/where the study be replicated by others, plans for cross-over analysis (i.e. give Mrs. Potato Head to “Barbie girls” of the 37 at a later timeframe), and use of many additional toys (i.e., soccer ball, princess dress, truck, beach toys, etc. etc.etc.). I plead with researchers–my background–to be sensitive to what headlines will do with small “research studies” with such narrow a focus. Does anyone really think this is sufficient info to be meaningful?

  2. No word in the abstract as to which Barbie they showed either. There have been plenty of Barbies modeling aspirational careers.

  3. Mark Twain quoted Benjamin Disraeli as saying “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
    I’m not a research scientist, but I find it kind of hard to believe that 37 children split into two groups is a large enough sample to ‘determine’ anything.
    So I think lie #3 is at play here.

  4. I have a problem with the study as well. What kind of questions were asked that determined that girls felt that they had fewer career choices than boys when they played with Barbie than Mrs. Potato Head? No wonder there was “fodder”. No conclusions…..

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