Kids May Learn Social Bias from Adults' Non-Verbal Cues

While most conscientious adults avoid making biased or discriminatory comments in the presence of children, a new study finds that young children can learn bias anyway by observing adults’ non-verbal cues, such as a condescending look or tone of voice.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Washington (UW), found that children can essentially “catch” social bias by picking up on these gestural cues and are likely to spread that learned bias to others.

“This research shows that kids are learning bias from the non-verbal signals that they’re exposed to, and that this could be a mechanism for the creation of racial bias and other biases that we have in our society,” said lead author Allison Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher in the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

“Kids are picking up on more than we think they are, and you don’t have to tell them that one group is better than another group for them to be getting that message from how we act.”

For the study, a group of 67 boys and girls (ages four and five) were shown a video in which two different female actors expressed positive gestures to one woman and negative gestures to another woman. All people in the video were the same race to avoid any chance of racial bias factoring into the results.

The actors greeted both women the same way and did the same activities with both (for example, giving each a toy) but the actors’ nonverbal signals differed when interacting with one woman versus the other. The actor spoke to one woman in a positive way — smiling, leaning toward her, using a warm tone of voice — and the other negatively, by scowling, leaning away, and speaking in a cold tone.

After the video, the researchers asked the children a series of questions, such as who they liked the best and who they wanted to share a toy with. The questions were designed to gauge whether they favored the recipient of positive nonverbal signals over the recipient of negative nonverbal signals.

The findings showed a consistent pattern of children favoring the recipient of positive nonverbal signals. Overall, 67 percent of children favored the recipient of positive nonverbal signals over the other woman, suggesting they were influenced by the non-verbal bias shown by the actor.

To further determine whether these nonverbal signals could lead to group bias or prejudice, the researchers recruited an additional 81 children of the same age. The children were shown the same videos from the previous study, then a researcher introduced them to the “best friends” of the two women in the video. The “friends” were portrayed as members of the same group, with each wearing the same color shirt as their friend. The children were then asked questions to assess whether they favored one friend over the other.

Significantly, the children tended to favor the friend of the recipient of the positive nonverbal signals over the friend of the other woman, suggesting that biases extend beyond individuals to members of their “groups.”

Skinner notes that many American preschoolers live in fairly homogenous environments with limited exposure to positive interactions with diverse populations. So even brief exposure to biased nonverbal signals, she says, could result in the development of a generalized bias. The study simulations represent only a small sample of what children likely witness in real life.

“Children are likely exposed to nonverbal biases demonstrated by multiple people toward many different members of a target group,” she says. “It is quite telling that brief exposure to biased nonverbal signals was able to create a bias among children in the lab.”

The study’s findings underscore the need for parents and other adults to be aware of the messages — verbal or non-verbal — that they convey to children about how they feel about other people.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: University of Washington