Children as young as seven years old can become biased against social groups after overhearing derogatory comments about them, according to a study published in the journal Child Development.
After overhearing a video chat where an unknown caller made brief negative claims about a fictional group, children said they were less willing to be friends with someone from that group and rated them as less “good” than children who didn’t hear the claims.
“These effects were robust,” says lead author Emily Conder from Vanderbilt University, US; “they were maintained two weeks after the video call existed and whether the caller was an adult or a child, indicating that merely overhearing a stranger’s negative claims about social groups can have a lasting influence on children’s attitudes towards those groups.”
This bias is an issue of mounting concern. “Prejudice and discrimination towards unfamiliar social groups is pervasive,” says Conder, “and is linked to a host of negative social and psychological outcomes.”
Intergroup bias – the tendency to prefer members of one’s own ethnic, racial or national group over others – can emerge during preschool after repeated exposure to discrimination, and develops rapidly between the ages of four and nine.
Research suggests children learn about new social groups from their environment. In an experimental study, for instance, seven-year-olds who were told that a member of a hypothetical group behaved anti-socially later predicted that a different person from that group would behave in the same manner.
Other research found that after hearing a story that highlighted ethnic essentialism, Jewish-Israeli six-year-olds drew an Arab person further away from a Jewish person than children who didn’t hear the story.
Most of this research has involved direct messages to children. Taking it further, Conder and co-author Jonathan Lane recruited 121 children aged four to nine, most from white, middle-class families.
The children were told they would play a picture-finding game, followed by a game on a nearby laptop computer. While they were playing the first game, the researcher received a Skype call from an adult or a child they described as their younger or older sister’s friend.
In the child’s view and earshot, the researcher mentioned the Gearoo or Flurp people. In the experimental condition the caller said “those Flurps [or Gearoos] are really bad people. They eat disgusting food, and they wear such weird clothes. The Flurps’ language sounds so ugly”.
In the control condition, the caller didn’t say anything about the novel group.
After the call, seven- to nine-year-olds showed more negative attitudes towards the outgroup on several measures, including drawing a picture of themselves further away from them and indicating they would be less likely to try elements of that group’s culture, such as food, clothing and games or attending a birthday party.
Attitudes persisted two weeks later when tested by a different experimenter. Consistent with other research, younger children aged four to five didn’t show any discrimination.
“These findings suggest that others’ conversations and media use may influence children’s intergroup biases,” says Conder.
“Caregivers who do not wish to propagate negative information about social groups might want to carefully consider what they say to others when children are present and to regulate the media that they themselves consume when in the presence of children.”
For their own part – and in fairness to Gearoos and Flurps – the researchers debriefed the children after the study, explaining they “were not real groups of people, but if they were real, they would probably be very nice people”.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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