Coos And Gurgles Communicate Stereotypes Too: Exclusionary Behavior In Infants And Children

March 20th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

Who knew that coos and gurgles communicate stereotypes too? A new study shows that infants as young as nine months demonstrate bias. Check out a description of the study. Many people, especially parents or those who work or live closely with children, are interested in understanding why children begin to show exclusionary practices at seemingly young ages. This study suggests, as social cognitive research has in the past, that categorizing based on perceived differences is a natural cognitive process. Although people may be wired from birth to categorize based on difference, they are not wired to categorize based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and so forth. Those specific categories are determined by culture. The meaning we assign to those categories can vary from one culture to the next.

Categorization at its most basic level, however, has nothing to do with people in particular. Tajfel and Wilkes (1963) showed that categorization about the lengths of lines could cause people to show bias. In their study, three groups of participants were shown a series of lines of varying lengths of which half were more short and half more long. For the first group the short lines were assigned the category A and the long lines were assigned the category B. For the second group the lines were randomly named either as A or B. For the third group the lines were not named. All participants in the study were asked to estimate the lengths of the lines that they had been shown. Participants in the first group exaggerated the lengths of the lines such that A lines & B lines were reported to be vastly different in length. This occurred less with the other two groups. The findings suggest that once people attach a category to a ‘thing’ (at least in cases when there are only two things) they are more likely to polarize those ‘things’ as vastly different. In the other two groups because participants could not attach the labels ‘A’ and ‘B’ onto specific types of lines they were able to avoid bias.

The boys’ camp studies (Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961/1988) extended Tajfel and Wilkes (1963) research into human intergroup behavior. In their studies, groups of unacquainted boys from similar socio-economic backgrounds were randomly assigned into two groups. Researchers then created opportunities for competition between the two groups. As a result the categories became more meaningful and motivated group members to polarize the two groups as different. Participants in both groups began to use stereotypes and other strategies to “exacerbat[e] and exaggerate[e] the ingroup-outgroup differentiation” (Sherif et al., p. xviv).

So what does this mean for exclusionary behavior? Well, it seems unavoidable that people are predisposed to express bias. This sounds hopeless.

Well, sometimes my daughter tells me she can’t do something because it’s too hard. My response is always the same, “Okay, give up then. I guess there’s nothing we can do. I guess you’ll just never be able to do it then.” This reverse psychology typically works well. After all, when something seems hopeless and frustrates us, even as we attempt to solve it, we can’t just give up or we would never get the things we want, advance ourselves, or make progress. Kids know that if they want to advance they need to keep trying.

So what do we do once we acknowledge that even children as young as nine months are predisposed to bias?

We keep trying and, specifically, we change the part that we can change. Recall that I mentioned the meaning we assign to groups is determined by culture. Well, then, we need to reassign that meaning. Not easy I know. Neither have been my daughters attempts to read. Yet, before my eyes she is learning to read. So too do we need to persevere by changing the categories on which bias is based.

This is how I handle my children when I see them engaging in exclusionary (biased) practices.

Perhaps my daughter will say something like, “well he can’t play with that because that’s a boy’s toy.”

First, I encourage her to see similarities across groups instead of differences. I say, “How would you feel if you wanted to play with something and couldn’t play with it?” This provides her with an opportunity to learn and use empathy.

Second, I encourage her to see the falsity of her polarization about the specific group she has given meaning to. I say, “But doesn’t your brother [or other person she knows that is counter to the stereotype] like to play with toys like that too.” This provides anecdotal evidence for the inaccuracy of the stereotype.

Third, I encourage her to consider the absurdity of group categories in general. I say, “Well, he also has blue eyes and you have brown eyes. Does that mean all blue eyed kids don’t like to play with this type of toy either?” This provides the opportunity for her to realize there are a million ways to categorize and that she can’t get caught up in viewing people by a limited number of categories because each person is so much more than that.

These strategies tend to work when I use them. I revisit them when exclusionary practices emerge again. It’s nice to see, though, when my daughter starts to use these strategies in her conversations with other children. I have armed her well to handle when others use exclusionary practices against her, even subtle ones.

Last week her friend tried to give her a purple crayon to color with. He argues, against her polite refusal, that she should want purple because she is a girl. She responded simply, “I do like purple but I like green too and I want to use green right now.” She showed empathy and similarity (you want me to like purple and I do like purple); she showed that the stereotype was not accurate (I like green sometimes too); she showed that not everyone fits neatly into a category (I like both purple and green).

Children are wired to be biased, but they are also wired to understand complex things that take them outside of their comfort zone. After all, they are trying all the time to do things that are difficult. Learning how to handle exclusionary practices should just be another part of their education.

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