Study Finds That Young Children Can Learn Biases Through Nonverbal Signals From Adults

A new study by psychologists at the University of Washington finds that preschool children can learn biases through nonverbal signals displayed by adults. The research found that young children can perceive bias by parents and other adults they interact with through tone of voice or facial expressions.

Researchers showed videos to children who were 4 or 5 years old. Actors in the videos gave positive signals such as smiles and using a warm tone of voice to one person in the video and gave negative signals to another person. The children were later asked which of the two people in the video they preferred. Two thirds of the children said they liked the person who had been give positive signals.

Allison L. Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington and lead author of the study, stated that “this research shows that kids are learning bias from the non-verbal signals that they’re exposed to, and that this could be a mechanism for the creation of racial bias and other biases that we have in our society. Kids are picking up on more than we think they are, and you don’t have to tell them that one group is better than another group for them to be getting that message from how we act.”

Dr. Skinner holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from California State University, Chico. She earned a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The study, “Catching Social Bias: Exposure to Biased Nonverbal Signals Creates Social Biases in Preschool Children,” was published on the website of the journal Psychological Science. It may be downloaded here.

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