Children as young as age three may show implicit bias against people of other races, a new study shows. But early intervention—before this type of bias has become entrenched—can dramatically reduce racism in children.
The study, published in the journal Child Development, focused on reducing kids’ subconscious negative and positive associations with different races. These implicit biases can arise when kids are exposed more to their own race, while explicit biases (which refers to preferences, stereotypes and prejudices that they’re more aware of) tend to be learned socially from adults, peers and the media.
For the study, researchers from OISE and their international colleagues worked with 95 Chinese preschool kids in China with no prior exposure to people of other races. They measured the kids’ implicit racial biases at the beginning of the study and found that these kids automatically associated black people with negative emotions and Chinese people with positive emotions.
The children in the study were randomly assigned to three groups and taught to differentiate either five black people, five white people or five Chinese people on a touchscreen app, going by their individual facial characteristics. The training was repeated for the group taught to differentiate black people.
“A second session a week later seemed to act like a booster shot, producing measurable differences in implicit bias 60 days later,” said Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences and a senior co-author on the study.
People of all ages who hold racially biased views typically see individuals of another race as all the same—as “those people”—rather than as specific individuals. “It’s possible to reduce this implicit racial bias quickly in young children with a method as simple as teaching them how to distinguish between other-race individuals,” says the author of the study, Miao K. Qian, a PhD student at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto and an affiliated researcher at Hangzhou Normal University. This work is best started when kids are in their pre-school years, before they become too set in their ways.
For the second and third group, respectively trained to differentiate white people and Chinese people, anti-black bias was unchanged. These results suggest that to reduce children’s implicit racial bias against a particular group, they must be actively taught to differentiate people from this race and see them as individuals.
“Using our app, young children can quickly learn to recognize people from a particular race other than their own, which is an important social skill for children living in the globalized environment,” explained OISE’s Kang Lee, another researcher on the project. “An added benefit of learning to identify people from another race as individuals is the reduction of their implicit racial bias against that race.”
“We think that reducing implicit racial bias in children could be a starting point for addressing a pernicious social problem,” says Heyman. “But it is not the complete answer to racial discrimination or to systemic, structural racism.”
The team of researchers are now working with a larger and more diverse group of children in Toronto on longer term follow-up studies. If their intervention is effective with this group, they hope to develop a more consumer-friendly version of their training: a fun, gamified app to be used in schools and at home.
Meanwhile, to start tackling implicit racial bias in day-to-day life, the researchers recommend that parents and teachers introduce kids to people of diverse races frequently, teaching them about who they are as individuals. They also note that teaching kids about famous role models from a variety of cultural backgrounds can have a powerful impact in reducing implicit biases against people of other races.
This article was originally published in October 2017.