Do babies show bias? Researchers seek the roots of racism

Interesting research and related debate:

Is your brain racist?

The answer may not be simple.

For decades, sociologists and scientists have been studying racism and racial bias. And it turns out, human brains may be at the root.

There are two types of bias: explicit, which is obvious, and implicit, where preconceived ideas of which people are unaware influence their behaviour.

While people may hold the steadfast belief that they aren’t racist, it’s still likely they exhibit implicit bias.

There have been many examples of how racial bias creeps into everyday life, from hiring practices to police actions to basketball.

There’s even a test for it, the Implicit Association Test. Developed by researchers at Harvard University, it measures people’s automatic associations between concepts and evaluations.

The test measures responses when sorting black and white faces while connecting them with words. The key is hesitation. A person may try to associate good with a particular race, but it might take them longer to respond, a sign that subconsciously, a person’s brain associates unpleasantness with a particular race.

Babies’ brains

So when do people begin to exhibit signs of racial bias? Some studies suggest it begins when babies are mere months old.

Kang Lee, a developmental neuroscientist who studies social cognition and behaviour at the University of Toronto, has done several studies on racial bias.

Most recently, Lee published two studies in the journal Child Development. One study suggested that racial bias may be present in babies between six and nine months old.

The study concluded that between these ages, babies begin to associate faces from their race with pleasant music and faces from other races with sad music.

“Basically, at three months of age, they like to look at things that are familiar, like food,” Kang said. They like familiar formula or prefer to hear their mother’s voice over someone else’s.

“This is purely experiential and based on perception cues,” he siad. “But there is no bias; they don’t attach negativity to people they’re not familiar with. But by six months of age they start to do that.”

In his second study, Lee concluded that babies are more likely to learn faster from people of their own race than from others.

The tendency to prefer own-race faces, or associate them with pleasant experiences, may be left over from early human evolution, Lee said. Before globalization, humans existed in more homogenous societies. They rarely encountered those from other races, and when they did, often they’d battle over food or territory.

Another researcher disagrees

But not everyone agrees that children so young exhibit racial bias. Andrew Baron, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, has also extensively studied bias. He doesn’t believe children just months old are necessarily exhibiting racial bias.

Many of the tests for babies, including Lee’s, measures the time a baby looks at an individual. But Baron says that’s not a fair measure.

“They look at things they like,” Baron said. “Total looking time doesn’t tell you what they’re thinking. In [Lee’s] study, they reported longer looking time, but there’s no reason to think that longer is due to race.”

Instead, they could be looking longer because an object is new to them, he said.

“My take is that it could be that own race is paired with positive,” Baron said. “But they could be looking at other race because it’s new and strange; there could be other interpretations.”

Reversing the process

Children’s apparent preferences for those of their own race don’t necessarily last, and they don’t mean the babies will become racist.

But there are ways to limit racial bias in children.

“Introduce kids to have experiences with other-race individuals, either face-to-face or with media,” Lee suggests. Parents could also avoid labelling people by race.

Source: Do babies show bias? Researchers seek the roots of racism – Technology & Science – CBC News


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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