Racist babies? Infants prefer to learn from adults of their own skin color, study says
Babies who aren't old enough to walk or talk still manage to exhibit racial bias, according to a new study. The research found that infants prefer to learn from adults who share their skin color.
As part of the study, researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and the University of Toronto – along with collaborators from the US, UK, France and China – gave infants a series of videos to watch.
In each video, a female adult looked at one of the four corners of the screen. In some videos, an animal image appeared in the direction she had looked. In other films, an animal image appeared at a non-looked at location.
The results showed that the infants followed the gaze of members of their own race more than they followed the gaze of members of other races.
“This occurred when the faces were slightly unreliable, as they are in the natural environment...” a press release from the University of Toronto states. “This result suggests that, under uncertainty, infants are biased to learn information from own-race adults as opposed to other-race adults.”
Infants under the age of six months were not found to show such bias, according to the study, which was published in the journal Child Development on Monday.
The findings follow a separate study which was conducted by the same researchers and published in the journal Developmental Science in January.
In that study, the researchers played a sequence of videos for three- to 10-month infants. The films depicted female adults with a neutral facial expression.
Before viewing each face, infants heard a music clip. They then participated in one of four music-face combinations: happy music followed by own-race faces; sad music followed by own-race faces; happy music followed by other-race faces; and sad music followed by other-race faces.
The research found that infants aged six- to nine-months looked longer at own-race faces when paired with happy music as opposed to sad music. They looked longer at other-race faces when paired with sad music compared to with happy music.
“Results showed that after six months of age, infants begin to associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music,” the press release states.
As with the first study, infants under the age of six months were not found to have the same bias.
Dr. Kang Lee, a professor at OISE's Jackman Institute of Child Study and the lead author of both pieces of research, said the findings of both studies are “significant for many reasons.”
“The results show that race-based bias already exists around the second half of a child's first year. This challenges the popular view that race-based bias first emerges only during the preschool years,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, first author of the two papers and a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, said the findings are notable because they contradict the belief that racial bias is associated with negative experiences a person may have had with other-race individuals. In other words, the children in the study were simply too young to have memories of such experiences.
Pointing to previous studies which indicate that many babies typically experience 90 percent of own-race faces, Lee said that racial interactions during infancy may influence our perceptions about race in adulthood.
“These findings thus point to the possibility that aspects of racial bias later in life may arise from our lack of exposure to other-race individuals in infancy,” he said.
Lee concluded that it is important to identify the starting point of racial bias in order to find ways of preventing it.