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New Study Shows Preschoolers Show Bias in Both Race and Gender

Can Even Preschoolers Show Racial, Gender Bias?

A new study provides evidence of bias at the intersection of race and gender in 4-year-old children.

This pattern of bias — known as gendered racial bias — mirrors harmful patterns of bias observed among adults, according to researchers at Northwestern University.

For the study, researchers examined the preschoolers’ responses to images of other children who varied both in race — black and white — and gender.

They discovered that although 4-year-olds generally responded positively to other children, their responses to black boys was significantly less positive than their responses to children of any other group, including black girls, white boys, and white girls.

According to the study’s findings, this outcome was exhibited by both white and non-white children and was not related to measures of children’s exposure to diversity.

The racial composition of the child participants mirrored those of their community: Approximately 60 percent white and 40 percent non-white, the researchers noted.

The study’s findings highlight the importance of addressing social bias in children even before they have entered preschool or kindergarten, the researchers claim.

“These results advance our understanding of the origins of social bias,” said Dr. Danielle Perszyk, lead author of the study. “They showcase young children’s exquisite sensitivity to the interactions they observe in the world around them.”

These results also raise new questions, she said.

“To discover how children’s social and cultural environments shape the biases they come to hold, it is essential that we investigate how biases emerge among children from diverse racial, ethnic, and demographic communities,” she said.

“The preschool years are key because they represent an ‘inflection point’ when children typically begin to interact more broadly with individuals beyond their families and close friends,” added Dr. Sandra Waxman, senior author of the study and the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and a faculty fellow with the university’s Institute for Policy Research.

“This greater exposure affords children an opportunity to observe social biases evidenced in their communities. Evidence from 4-year-old children is also important because in contrast to the social biases held by adults, those of young children are highly malleable.”

In the study, the researchers adapted a classic implicit bias task that until now has been used with adults and older children, modifying it to accommodate 4-year-old children.

The researchers asked the children to view images of black and white girls and boys. Each image was presented briefly and followed immediately with a neutral image (Chinese orthographic symbols), the researchers explained.

Children were instructed to say how much they liked that neutral image. Across two experiments, children favored the images following faces of white children over those following black children, according to the study’s findings.

The pro-white bias was tempered by gender: Children rated neutral images significantly less positively if they followed pictures of black boys than pictures of any other group — black girls, white boys, or white girls, the researchers reported.

“This work raises crucial new questions,” Perszyk said. “For example, it will be important to broaden this empirical base by including more children from diverse racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds and by examining the emergence of social bias in communities where race, majority status, and social status may be less intertwined.”

“Identifying how social biases emerge in diverse racial, ethnic, and demographic contexts will be essential for identifying how children’s social environments shape the biases they come to hold,” Waxman added. “In our view, this evidence will be key for raising the next generation with less pernicious racial and gender biases than our own.”

The study was published in the journal Developmental Science.

Source: Northwestern University

Can Even Preschoolers Show Racial, Gender Bias?

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). Can Even Preschoolers Show Racial, Gender Bias?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Jan 2019 (Originally: 29 Jan 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Jan 2019
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