Social Science: The Kids are Watching

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Social Science: The Kids are Watching

It sounds like common sense to avoid saying blatantly biased or racist things around children if you don’t want them to grow up believing negative stereotypes about marginalized groups. But even if you don’t say anything, your kids can pick up on the subtle indications of your subconscious bias.

A study published in December in the journal Psychological Science shows that pre-school aged children can pick up non-verbal cues of racial bias—and that they’re likely to internalize or “catch” that bias.

“This research shows that kids are learning bias from the non-verbal signals that they’re exposed to, and that this could be a mechanism for the creation of racial bias and other biases that we have in our society,” said lead author Allison Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher in the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “Kids are picking up on more than we think they are, and you don’t have to tell them that one group is better than another group for them to be getting that message from how we act.”

Researchers showed a video to a group of 67 children ages four and five, with a mix of boys and girls. The video showed three actors interacting—all of the actors were the same race, to eliminate the possibility of existing racial bias skewing the results—the central actor in the video showed positive nonverbal reactions to one of the other actors (leaning in close to talk to her, smiling, etc.) and negative reactions to the other (scowling, leaning away, speaking in a cold tone). The children were then asked which of the two secondary actors they liked better, and 67 percent reported that they preferred the actor who was treated warmly.

Wondering whether those learned attitudes toward the actors would extend to the groups to which they belong, the researchers then showed another video to an expanded group of children where they introduced “best friends” of each of the two actors, and a majority of the participants indicated that they preferred the “friends” of the actor who had been treated warmly to the “friends” of the actor who had been treated coldly.

This, they believe, indicates children will deduce judgments about groups of people based on the nonverbal attitudes that authority figures display toward their representatives. In other words: if you clutch your purse a little tighter when a black man walks past you and your child, even if you don’t say anything about it, it’s likely that your child will internalize this response, and learn that black men in general are not to be trusted around valuables. If you speak coldly or condescendingly to a gay person around your kid, they’ll learn to look down on gay people.

“It is quite telling that brief exposure to biased nonverbal signals was able to create a bias among children in the lab,” Skinner said, elaborating that since many preschoolers live in pretty homogenous environments, with few opportunities to see adults interacting positively with people from different backgrounds, even a few passing cues can make a lasting impression and cause children to form bias.

And in case you thought that jokes didn’t count as biased remarks, new research shows that making racist/derogatory jokes isn’t any better than earnestly repeating stereotypes—that “disparagement humor” fosters discrimination. So no matter how hard you insist it was “just a joke,” these kinds of remarks have serious implications.

So if you want your kids to grow up to treat all people equally, definitely start by putting a lid on the racy jokes (that probably aren’t funny anyway), but remember that also have to demonstrate tolerance through your most subtle actions. This might be the most compelling reason yet to check your privilege, and interrogate yourself to find subconscious bias so that you can examine and eliminate it. Remember: The kids are watching.

Image: Wayne S. Grazio CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lilly Dancyger is Deputy Editor of Narratively, and a freelance journalist based in New York City.