Babies show racial bias at nine months, U of T study suggests
Two new U of T studies suggest racial bias can develop in babies before they’ve even started walking.
Two new University of Toronto studies suggest racial bias can develop in babies at an early age — before they’ve even started walking.
Led by the school’s Ontario Institute of Child Study professor Kang Lee, in partnership with researchers from the U.S., U.K., France, and China, the studies examined how infants react to individuals of their own race, compared to individuals of another race.
“The goal of the study was to find out at which age infants begin to show racial bias,” Lee said. “With existing studies, the evidence shows that kids show bias around 3 or 4 years of age. We wanted to look younger.”
The first study looked at 193 Chinese infants from three to ninth months, recruited from a hospital in China, who hadn’t had direct contact with people of other races. The babies were then shown videos of six Asian women and six African women, paired with either happy or sad music.
The study found that infants from three to six months old didn’t associate sad or happy music with people of the same race or of other races, which indicates they “are not biologically predisposed to associate own- and other-race faces with music of different emotional valence.”
However, at around nine months old, the reactions were different.
According to the study, nine-month-old babies looked at their own-race faces paired with happy music for a longer period of time, as well as other-race faces paired with sad music. Lee says this supports the hypothesis that infants associate people of the same race with happy music, and other races with sad music.
That’s not to say parents are teaching their children how to discriminate against other raced individuals, Lee says.
“We are very confident that the cause of this early racial bias is actually the lack of exposure to other raced individuals,” he said. “It tells us that in Canada, if we introduce our kids to other-raced individuals, then we are likely to have less racial bias in our kids against other-raced people.”
Andrew Baron, an associate professor of psychology the University of British Columbia, said while the goal of the study is “terrific,” there are many reasons infants would look for longer amounts of time at faces of different races. For example, he says an infant could spend more time looking at an own-race face because it is familiar, or at an other-race face because it is different and unexpected.
“It’s impossible to draw that conclusion about association from a single experiment when you could have half a dozen reasons why you would look longer that don’t support the conclusion that was made in that paper,” said Baron, who was not involved in the studies, but specializes in a similar field — the development of implicit associations among infants.
“There’s multiple reasons — and contradictory reasons — why we look longer at things. We look longer at things we fear, we look longer at things we like. That’s an inherent tension in how you choose to interpret the data.”
The second study took a closer look at that bias and how it affects children’s learning skills.
Researchers showed babies videos of own-race and other-race adults looking in the same direction that photos of animals appeared (indicating they are reliable) and looking in the wrong direction of the animals (indicating they are unreliable).
The study found that when adults were reliable and looking in the direction of the animals, the infants followed both own- and other-raced individuals equally. The same results occurred when the adults were unreliable and looking in the wrong direction.
However, when the adults gaze was only sometimes correct, the children were more likely to take cues provided by adults of their own race.
“In this situation, very interestingly, kids treated their own-raced individuals — who are only 50 per cent correct — as if they were 100 per cent correct,” Lee said.
“There is discrimination, but only when there is uncertainty.”
The first study was published in Developmental Science and the second was in Child Development.
The study was conducted in China, Lee says, because the researchers were able to control the exposure to other-raced individuals.
Lee said he has been trying for nearly 10 years to organize a study looking at babies born into mixed-race families. He suspects infants born into mixed-race families would show less racial bias.
When it comes to parents who want to try to eliminate racial bias from a young age, Lee says exposure is key.
“If parents want to prevent racial biases from emerging, the best thing to do is expose their kids to TV programs, books, and friends from different races,” he said.
“And the important message is they have to know them by name . . . it’s extremely important to know them as individuals.”