Anyone who’s spent time with young children knows that they can be surprisingly (and sometimes inconveniently) perceptive. Psychologists from Northwestern University have found that children as young as four show signs of racial bias, suggesting they pick up on cues to act intolerant from the adults around them from a very early age.
Researchers ran two studies, published in Developmental Science on Jan. 23, showing that children responded to black children (and particularly, black boys) significantly less positively than they did to white children. In the first study, 30 four- to five-year-olds (63% of which were white, and 37% non-white) were shown 64 pairs of images; each pair contained the image of a smiling child, followed by a Chinese character. The children were asked to say whether the Chinese character (which was selected by the researchers as a neutral image) was “nice looking,” or “not nice looking.” Researchers found that children were significantly more likely to say the character was nice looking when it followed the image of a white face than a black face. They were also more likely to rate a character positively when it followed a female face, meaning that those characters that followed the images of black boys received the lowest ratings.
The researchers repeated this experiment with a different set of 30 children (60% white, and 40% non-white), only they used images of children with a neutral expression rather than smiling. They found the same results: Children rated the images following white faces more positively than those following black faces, and also showed more positive ratings for those images following female faces. In this experiment, the researchers also asked the participants to explicitly rate the images of children’s faces on a six-point scale from “really don’t like” to “really like.” These results again mirrored their earlier findings: Children said they liked white faces more than black, and female faces more than male.
White and non-white participants showed the same patterns of racial bias in all the experiments.
There are limits to the study, especially as it only involves 60 children. And, although it provided a measure of bias in a study setting, it of course can’t perfectly replicate real-life environments. But earlier research shows it’s incredibly difficult to prevent preschoolers from picking up on racial biases if the adults around them show signs of prejudice. As the authors note, previous studies have shown that witnessing an adult’s nonverbal negative behavior towards someone leads preschoolers to have negative impressions of people from the same demographic group.
Even if parents make a conscious effort to act without prejudice, children are rarely entirely free from exposure to bias. There’s significant bias among teachers, for example: Earlier research shows that teachers evaluate black boys more negatively in particular.
Children may look pure and innocent but, as this research suggests, they pick up on social cues easily. Even childlike goodness can be tainted by adults’ prejudices.