News and Commentary

SCIENCE: Babies Are Racist

According to researchers at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), while people aren’t born racist, adorable little six-month-old infants often are. But no worries, scientists think they might have the answer to preventing the nearly universal problem of baby racism.

Two studies conducted by OISE in collaboration with researchers from the U.S., U.K., France and China purport to demonstrate that racial bias begins earlier than previous studies suggested. Signs of racial bias, the researchers concluded, begin to appear as early as six-months-old, with infants associating positive thoughts and demonstrating more trust in “own-race faces,” while showing bias against different-race faces.

The key findings of the two studies were highlighted in a media release published on Tuesday, in which the OISE explains that its researchers found that “six- to nine-month-old infants demonstrate racial bias in favour of members of their own race and racial bias against those of other races.”

The first study “showed that after six months of age, infants begin to associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music.” The second study found that “six-to eight-month-old infants were more inclined to learn information from an adult of his or her own race than from an adult of a different race.”

Both studies found that infants less than six months old did not show any evidence of such racial bias.

“The findings of these studies are significant for many reasons,” said OISE’s Dr. Kang Lee, lead author of the two studies. “The results show that race-based bias already exists around the second half of a child’s first year. This challenges the popular view that race-based bias first emerges only during the preschool years.”

Princeton doctoral fellow Dr. Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, first author of the two papers, said that the studies show that “race-based bias emerges without experience with other-race individuals,” rather than stemming from a “negative experience he or she may have had with other-race individuals.”

“These findings thus point to the possibility that aspects of racial bias later in life may arise from our lack of exposure to other-race individuals in infancy,” Lee hypothesized, adding, “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.”

Dr. Xiao suggested that the studies point to the importance of early exposure to other races to prevent the potential development of racial bias later in life.

Below are summaries of the studies provided in the OISE media release (formatting adjusted):

First study: Face-race and music

In the first study, infants from 3 to 10 months of age watched a sequence of videos depicting female adults with a neutral facial expression. Before viewing each face, infants heard a music clip. Babies participated in one of the four music-face combinations: happy music followed by own-race faces, sad music followed by own-race faces, happy music followed by other-race faces, and sad music followed by other-race faces. The study found that infants at six to nine months of age looked longer at own-race faces when paired with happy music as opposed to with sad music. By contrast, six- to nine-month-olds looked longer at other-race faces when paired with sad music compared to with happy music.

Second study: Face-race and learning

The second study examined whether infants were biased to learn from own-race adults versus other-race adults. Six to eight-month-old infants saw a series of videos. In each video, a female adult looked at any one of the four corners of the screen. Following the look, in some videos, an animal image appeared in the looked-at location (a reliable gaze). In other videos, an animal image appeared at a non-looked-at location (an unreliable gaze). The results showed that six to eight-month-old infants followed the gaze of members of their own race more than they followed the gaze of other-race individuals. This occurred when the faces were slightly unreliable, as they are in the natural environment. This result suggests that, under uncertainty, infants are biased to learn information from own-race adults as opposed to other-race adults.

H/T Peter Hasson

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