Curious Parents

With A Puppet Show For Babies, Researchers Uncovered The Basis Of Prejudice

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Are bias, discrimination, and bigotry a product of our society, or are they just a part of being human? A study from the University of British Columbia has an uplifting answer to that: bias is learned, and that may mean it can be overcome.

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You Can't Sit With Us

There's been plenty of research into the way babies and children perceive people who are and aren't like them. As early as age 3, kids start to make negative judgments about people outside their social group, and even in their first year of life, babies already show a preference for the familiar, especially when it comes to race, language, and gender. But just because babies prefer one group doesn't necessarily mean they think badly of the other. That's why University of British Columbia graduate student Anthea Pun set out to uncover how infants actually judge people who are different from them.

For a study published in the journal Developmental Science, Pun and her team recruited 456 infants ranging in age from 8 to 16 months, then performed six experiments to see how they perceived people who spoke their native language (English) and an unfamiliar language (French). In one experiment, for example, the babies watched two puppets playing with a ball. After greeting the infant and saying, "Look what I'm going to do!", one puppet catches a ball tossed by another puppet. Next, he either passes it back, demonstrating what the researchers call prosocial behavior, or runs off with it, demonstrating antisocial behavior.

Diversity Is The Answer

Experiments like this generally measure the way babies are reacting to the world around them through "habituation," or how long it takes them to lose interest in something. If they stare for a long time, that suggests something subverted their expectations and left them surprised. The infants in this study were more surprised to see puppets speaking their native language engaging in antisocial behavior than prosocial behavior, suggesting that they generally think speakers of a familiar language are good.

But when it came to the puppets speaking an unfamiliar language, babies didn't have any expectations one way or the other. This suggests that, happily, we aren't born with biases against outsiders; we develop them later in life. That begs the question, however: how do parents avoid raising biased kids?

Previous research may have an answer. Other habituation studies show that infants don't necessarily prefer people like them, but people like the people they're familiar with. Whether it's race, language, gender, or even attractiveness, infants tend to gravitate toward the elements most like those they're raised around. Raising children around people of many different ethnicities and backgrounds makes diversity familiar, and that may be able to stop bias in its tracks.

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