Reducing Implicit Racial Bias in Children

People who hold racially biased views often generalize those in other racial groups as being all the same rather than seeing them as individuals. Now a new study suggests a new strategy to reduce racial bias in kids: Teach them to identify individual faces among those in another racial group.

The findings are published in the journal Child Development.

For the study, researchers from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto observed four to six year-old Chinese children in two 20-minute sessions. The children played with a touch-screen app designed to distinguish individual black faces. The researchers found that the app significantly reduced the children’s implicit anti-black bias, and this bias reduction lasted for at least two months.

“There are two key findings here,” said Dr. Kang Lee. “First, using our app, young children can quickly learn to recognize people from a particular race other than their own, which is an important social skill for children living in the globalized environment.”

“Second and more importantly, an added benefit of learning to identify people from another race as individuals is the reduction of their implicit racial bias against that race.”

“For parents and teachers, this means if you introduce children to those of another race frequently, teaching them about who they are as individuals, the implicit bias children hold against the people of that race will decrease.”

Teaching kids about Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama is one example of how adults can reduce implicit anti-black bias in non-black children, Lee added.

Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology in the University of California (UC) San Diego Division of Social Sciences and a senior co-author on the study, echoed Dr. Lee, emphasizing that in the study, the key to reducing the bias was the repeat session.

“A single session had minimal immediate effects that dissipated quickly. The lesson didn’t stick. But a second session a week later seemed to act like a booster shot, producing measurable differences in implicit bias 60 days later,” she said.

The researchers say it’s important to note the study focused on reducing implicit bias, or the extent to which humans have subconscious negative and positive associations with different races. This type of bias may naturally arise from greater exposure to those of one’s own race.

Explicit bias, on the other hand, refers to preferences, stereotypes, and prejudices we’re more aware of, which may be learned socially from adults and peers.

First author on the study, Miao K. Qian, a Ph.D student at OISE at the University of Toronto and an affiliated researcher at Hangzhou Normal University, said that before conducting this study, she was “shocked” to learn that children, even at age three, already exhibit implicit racial bias against people of other races.

“What’s encouraging about this research is it shows it’s possible to reduce this implicit racial bias quickly in young children with a method as simple as teaching them how to distinguish between other-race individuals,” she said.

The research involved 95 preschoolers in China who had not yet had any direct interaction with non-Asian people. The researchers measured the children’s implicit racial biases at the beginning of the study. They found that the kids had strong implicit bias against black people. That is, the children automatically associated black people with negative emotions and Chinese people with positive emotions.

Then, the children were randomly assigned to one of the three training groups:

  • In the first group, children saw photos of five black people and were taught to differentiate them individually.
  • In the second group, children were taught to differentiate five white people individually.
  • In the third group, children were taught to differentiate five Chinese people individually.

After the training, all children were tested again in terms of their implicit racial bias against black people. One week later, the children who had learned to differentiate black people received the same training for another 20 minutes.

The results reveal that these two sessions of training were enough to significantly reduce racial bias against black people in children for at least another 60 days (the longest time the researchers were able to track the children).

However, for the second group, which was trained to differentiate white people, their anti-black bias was unchanged. The same was true for the third group who were trained to differentiate Chinese people.

The findings suggest that to lower children’s implicit racial bias against a particular race group, they must be trained to differentiate individuals specifically from this race.

“Our study points to the effectiveness of intervention in early childhood — before bias has become entrenched,” said Qian.

“As Dr. Lee pointed out, we also suggest that parents and teachers can help reduce bias by teaching children to distinguish other-race individuals by their names and personal attributes, instead of focusing on categorical traits, such as saying, ‘the black boy’, for example.”

Source: University of Toronto

Posted by Patricia Adams