Researchers randomly assigned thirty-seven girls from the Pacific Northwest, ages four to seven, to play with one of three dolls -- Doctor Barbie, Fashion Barbie or Mrs. Potato Head.
The experiment was a tag-team effort by Aurora Sherman, a psychologist at Oregon State University, and Eileen Zurbriggen, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
After playtime, the participants were shown photos of ten occupations and asked whether they could see themselves in the role in the future, or if it was a job for boys.
Those who played with one of the two Barbies were much more likely to limit the number of occupations they imagined themselves in, whereas Potato Head holders typically felt capable of pursuing all ten occupations.
Whether Barbie was sporting the uniform of a fashion model or wearing a doctor's coat, the dream-dampening effect was the same.
"Perhaps Barbie can 'Be Anything' as the advertising for this doll suggests, but girls who play with her may not apply these possibilities to themselves," Sherman said of the findings. "Something about the type of doll, not characteristics of the participants, causes the difference in career aspirations."
Sherman and her research partner say the study proves that girls, even at a young age, can recognize the sexualized nature of Barbie, as well as her unrealistic body shape, and that these things feed into a girl's understanding of gender roles.
The study was published recently in Springer's journal Sex Roles.