What makes a truck a ‘boy toy’

Sep 12, 2021, 11:26 PM | Updated: Sep 13, 2021, 9:44 am

SALT LAKE CITY — The California legislature has been debating a bill that would make it illegal to have separate boy and girl aisles in large department stores. But what is it that makes a toy “for boys” or “for girls” in the first place?

Photojournalist Peter Rosen considers the question of boys and trucks:

Tuesday mornings at my house, without ceremony, the garbage truck comes and goes.

A few years ago, though, when my sons were passing through a phase of human male development — let’s call it the “truck phase” — it was an event.

They were preoccupied with heavy machinery, specifically, with earth-moving equipment and trains.

I didn’t encourage or discourage it. It just was. It seemed, in fact, to be something innate, something sculpted by evolution, and buried deep within their genetic blueprints.

In the same way, it’s thought that males pal around together because strong male bonding once meant successful group hunting.

Perhaps this, too, was some deep-seated adaptation.

However, early hominids didn’t drive pickups. Trucks didn’t drive onto the scene until 1896.

So, I asked what seems a simple, obvious, maybe silly question: Why trucks?

If toy trucks are a “male” toy, I wondered, what is it that makes them that way?

It’s well-documented that while young girls, in general, aren’t picky about what toys they play with, boys, in general, prefer “boy toys,” including cars and trucks.

How much of that is nature vs. nurture is up for debate, but there does seem to be a biological component.

Girls with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia (CAH), who have been exposed to high prenatal levels of adrenal androgens, including testosterone, show a strong preference for male toys.

It also turns out boy monkeys like trucks.

Texas A&M University psychologist Gerianne Alexander and psychologist Melissa Hines demonstrated that with vervet monkeys.

Psychologist Kim Wallen and other researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center produced similar results with rhesus monkeys.

Study finds rhesus monkeys prefer trucks over plush toys.

“Clearly, the females prefer the plush toys, but the preference wasn’t very strong,” said Wallen. “The males, on the other hand, showed a preference for the wheeled toys, and it was extremely strong.”

“The wheeled toys let the boys engage in an activity that they really like, just like the boys really like rough and tumble play, wrestling play. And the girls, not so much.”

Kim Wallen, Emory University psychologist. (KSL TV)

So, what is it about trucks?

Nora Newcombe at Temple University suggested it may have more to do with how boys move — that toy trucks offer opportunity for vigorous activity.

“Boys have higher activity levels. They just sort of move more, wiggle more… and trucks are moving, and maybe there’s something about motion that is more attractive overall,” said Newcombe.

Professor Nora Newcombe, Temple University. (KSL TV)

Newcombe said, from an evolutionary perspective, males are more active because women are more important for the survival of the species.

“You can assign men more males, more dangerous roles in hunting-gathering society,” she said. “That could be that reason that males (have a) higher (activity level) because they are going to be the ones who hunt, repel animals.”

How, then, do you explain another of Alexander’s experiments — baby boys who hadn’t yet played with toy trucks still preferred to look at them rather than so-called “female toys?”

“Boys spent more looking time on the trucks than the baby dolls,” said Alexander. “It predates the age where they can recognize themselves as male or female. Presumably, they also can’t manipulate the toys, so there’s something else that that’s driving this, at least that’s what that study suggests.”

Psychologist Gerianne Alexander, Texas A&M University. (KSL TV)

In a scientific journal, two researchers suggested the possibility that it may have something to do with how males see and hear, that perhaps they filter out information in a way that makes toy trucks more attractive.

“It (the fact that boys like trucks) has been presented over the years as the classically socialized sex difference, that it’s all, it’s all a matter of context,” Wallen said. “I think the monkey study raises the question, is it really all a matter of context? Does the little girl, little boy not bring anything to the table? Are they just waiting for the parents to say, ‘This is the toy you should play with?’ I think most parents know that that’s not true.”

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