TORONTO — How early in life does a person begin to show preference towards or bias against a specific race? Two new studies show that babies as young as six months demonstrate racial bias, though the reason why may not be as surprising as the finding.
Professor Kang Lee at the University of Toronto led both research teams, discovering that infants from 6- to 9-months-old favor people from their own race, while showing bias against others. Less exposure to people of other ethnicities is viewed as the cause.
“The results show that race-based bias already exists around the second half of a child’s first year,” says Lee, a Canada Research Chair in moral development and developmental neuroscience, in a university news release. “This challenges the popular view that race-based bias first emerges only during the preschool years.”
In the first experiment, 193 Chinese babies from three to nine months old were shown various pictures of faces — some of their own race and some of other races — accompanied by either uplifting or sad music. The 9-month-old infants were found to look at the images of people from their own race longer when accompanied by happy music than when paired with sad music. They also showed little preference for images of people from other races when paired with the happier music.
Lee and the team determined that the babies showed a clear association with faces of their own race and uplifting music, and vice versa for those of other races.
The infants younger than 9-months-old did not demonstrate any preference.
In the second study, 32 Chinese babies between six and eight-and-a-half months old took part in three different experiments to see if they showed a preference towards race when it came to learning or trusting information from different adults. The “information,” such as an adult of the same or different race gazing at a location where an animal would appear, centered around the adults telegraphing something about to happen by looking in that direction.
Again, the researchers determined that the infants “are biased to follow the social cues of own-race individuals over other-race adults under situations of uncertainty,” according to the report.
“These findings thus point to the possibility that racial bias may arise out of our lack of exposure to other-race individuals in infancy,” says Lee. “If we can pinpoint the starting point of racial bias, which we may have done here, we can start to find ways to prevent racial biases from happening.”
The researchers argue that the studies shed new light on societal beliefs that racial bias stems from specific events in an individual’s life or through learned stereotypes.
“When we consider why someone has a racial bias, we often think of negative experiences he or she may have had with other-race individuals. But these findings suggest that a race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals,” says Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, who also led research for the two studies and now is a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University.
Lee adds that the studies can also help parents understand how they influence the way their children think or their beliefs about others. In effect, they can also help their children erase biased thinking.
“It’s very important to study where these kinds of biases come from and use that information to try and prevent racial biases from developing,” he says.
The first study was published in the journal Developmental Science. The second was published in the journal Child Development.