Ba­bies ex­hibit racial bias as early as nine months

U of T stud­ies find lack of ex­po­sure to other races the likely cause


Two new Univer­sity of Toronto stud­ies sug­gest that racial bias can de­velop in ba­bies at an early age — be­fore they’ve even started walk­ing.

Led by the school’s On­tario In­sti­tute of Child Study pro­fes­sor Kang Lee, in part­ner­ship with re­searchers from the U.S., U.K., France and China, the stud­ies ex­am­ined how in­fants re­act to in­di­vid­u­als of their own race, com­pared to in­di­vid­u­als of an­other race.

“The goal of the study was to find out at which age in­fants be­gin to show racial bias,” Lee said. “With ex­ist­ing stud­ies, the ev­i­dence shows that kids show bias around three or four years of age. We wanted to look younger.”

The first study looked at 193 Chi­nese in­fants from three to ninth months age, re­cruited from a hos­pi­tal in China, who hadn’t had di­rect con­tact with peo­ple of other races. The ba­bies were then showed videos of six Asian women and six African women, paired with ei­ther happy or sad mu­sic.

The study found that in­fants from 3 to 6 months old didn’t as­so­ciate sad or happy mu­sic with ei­ther same or other raced in­di­vid­u­als, which in­di­cates that they “are not bi­o­log­i­cally pre­dis­posed to as­so­ciate own- and other-race faces with mu­sic of dif­fer­ent emo­tional va­lence.”

How­ever, at around nine months old, the re­ac­tions were dif­fer­ent. Ac­cord­ing to the study, nine-month-old ba­bies looked at their own-race faces paired with happy mu­sic for longer, as well as other-race faces paired with sad mu­sic.

Lee says this sup­ports the hy­poth­e­sis that in­fants as­so­ciate peo­ple of the same race with happy mu­sic and other races with sad mu­sic. That’s not to say par­ents are teach­ing their chil­dren how to dis­crim­i­nate against other raced in­di­vid­u­als, Lee says.

“We are very con­fi­dent that the cause of this early racial bias is ac­tu­ally the lack of ex­po­sure to other raced in­di­vid­u­als,” he said. “It tells us that in Canada, if we in­tro­duce our kids to other-raced in­di­vid­u­als, then we are likely to have less racial bias in our kids against other-raced peo­ple.”

An­drew Baron, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, said while the goal of the study is “ter­rific,” there are many rea­sons in­fants would look for longer amounts of time at faces of dif­fer­ent races. For ex­am­ple, he says an in­fant could spend more time look­ing at an own-race face be­cause it is fa­mil­iar, or at an other-race face be­cause it is dif­fer­ent.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to draw that con­clu­sion about as­so­ci­a­tion from a sin­gle ex­per­i­ment when you could have half a dozen rea­sons why you would look longer that don’t sup­port the con­clu­sion that was made in that pa­per,” Baron said.

The sec­ond study took a closer look at that bias and how it af­fects chil­dren’s learn­ing skills. Re­searchers showed ba­bies videos of own-race and other-race adults look­ing in the same di­rec­tion that pho­tos of an­i­mals ap­peared (in­di­cat­ing they are re­li­able) and look­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion of the an­i­mals (in­di­cat­ing they are unreliable).

The study found that when adults were re­li­able and look­ing in the di­rec­tion of the an­i­mals, the in­fants fol­lowed both own and other raced in­di­vid­u­als equally. The same results oc­curred when the adults were unreliable and look­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. How­ever, when the adults gaze was only some­times cor­rect, the chil­dren were more likely to take cues pro­vided by adults of their own race.

“In this sit­u­a­tion, very in­ter­est­ingly, kids treated their own-raced in­di­vid­u­als — who are only 50 per cent cor­rect — as if they were 100 per cent cor­rect,” Lee said. “There is dis­crim­i­na­tion, but only when there is un­cer­tainty.”

The first study was pub­lished in De­vel­op­men­tal Sci­ence and the sec­ond was in Child De­vel­op­ment.

The study was con­ducted in China, Lee says, be­cause the re­searchers were able to con­trol the ex­po­sure to other-raced in­di­vid­u­als.

The study looked at 3- to 9-month-old Chi­nese in­fants who hadn’t had di­rect con­tact with peo­ple of other races.

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