Bobby’s Trains and Confirmation Bias

Bobby’s Trains and Confirmation Bias February 24, 2014

Bobby’s face was pressed against the glass surrounding the electric train set. The trains were running, whistling, and crossing each other’s paths. It was his favorite part of the children’s museum. Even at only one year of age, children have interests and show preferences, and one of Bobby’s definite interests is trains.

Just then, my husband Sean’s Uncle Dale walked over and smiled at Bobby. “Look at him!” he said. “He’s obsessed with that train. He’s such a boy!” I frowned. I hate it when this happens. I took a deep breath.

“Actually,” I said, “When Sally was Bobby’s age, she was completely obsessed with large construction vehicles.”

Uncle Dale laughed. “How odd,” he said. His voice was dismissive.

“I don’t think it’s odd at all,” I replied. “I find that if you let kids just be kids rather than pushing them into gendered boxes their interests are generally eclectic.”

I didn’t mention Bobby’s high heels. Perhaps I should have. As I’ve written before, Bobby absolutely adores the pair of white heels I bought him at the consignment shop a few months ago. He loves running around clacking his heels. He wears other pairs of girls’ shoes too (passed down by Sally), as well as boys’ shoes and grown up shoes. Shoes, shoes, shoes—the kid is obsessed. I also didn’t mention Bobby’s favorite iPad app, Candy Girl Resort. He loves giving the characters in the app facials and dressing them up, choosing each article of clothing. He plays lots of other apps too, but he always seems to come back to that one.

Sally’s interests are similarly diverse. There was her construction vehicle obsession, and today she’s just as into superheroes as she is into princesses. And what’s really interesting is that even as she loves fancy princess dresses, she has never played with baby dolls. Yes, really. And it’s not that she doesn’t have any—some relatives passed us some practically new Bitty Baby dolls, along with numerous sets of clothing. She has just never been a baby doll kind of girl. Princesses, yes. Baby dolls, no. Plus superheroes. And did I notice there is nothing that grosses her out? When I’m grossed out she’s simply fascinated.

Neither Sally nor Bobby fit in conventional gender boxes, but someone who spotted Sally playing at princesses might very well respond with “She’s such a girl!” in the same way that Uncle Dale noticed Bobby fascinated by trains and responded with “He’s such a boy.”

What’s going on here exactly? Confirmation bias.

From Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

When Uncle Dale saw Bobby fascinated with trains, that confirmed his belief that trains are a boy thing. If he’d seen Sally similarly fascinated with the same electric train set, he probably wouldn’t have latched onto it. He similarly wouldn’t notice Sally not playing with dolls. He was fitting what he saw into his preconceived gender ideologies and ignoring things that didn’t fit. When I told him about Sally’s construction vehicle obsession his response was not “huh, maybe I should rethink my assumptions about gender” but rather a dismissive “how odd.”

Confirmation bias is one way people can continue to hold more rigid gender ideologies in a more fluid world—they latch onto information that confirms their biases and rejecting information that contradicts them. Of course, anyone can suffer from confirmation bias, and we all do at some point or another. But as a parent raising a child of each gender in today’s world, I see firsthand the way confirmation bias can reinforce traditional ideas about gender and affect our lives—and our children’s lives. Why can’t we just let children be children, and recognize that each child will have a variety of interests that may not fit into any preconceived gender box?

Yes, Bobby loves his trains, but he’s also not about to give up Candy Girl Resort.

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