Brainy Background and Research on Social Bias, an Interview with Andrew N. Meltzoff and Vroom

Republished with permission from Vroom
Hardly a day goes by without stories about racism, sexism, bias, prejudice and stereotyping in the news. How do children learn these attitudes? Can children catch social bias simply by watching adults? A new study by Andrew N. Meltzoff and colleagues from the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, offers evidence that they can.

In this interview, Ellen Galinsky, chief science officer at the Bezos Family Foundation and Vroom advisor, discusses a new social bias study with Meltzoff, who is a Vroom advisor and leading researcher on young children, imitation and social-emotion learning.

ELLEN GALINSKY: What led you to study how children “catch” social bias?

ANDREW MELTZOFF: We wondered how our little children—who come into the world presumably without social biases built in—develop them.

GALINSKY: What was your hunch, your hypothesis?

MELTZOFF: One hypothesis is that children catch social biases by watching how adults behave when we interact with others.

GALINSKY: How did you test this hypothesis?

MELTZOFF: We designed a study where we created a videotape to show to preschoolers. It showed an adult actor sitting in the middle of two other adults. The central actor would turn to the adults on either side, using the exact same words, but expressing those words differently: in a very friendly and positive way to one person (let’s say on her left) and in a negative way to the other person (let’s say on her right). Negativity was expressed by leaning away and using a cold tone of voice. Next, the central actor handed a toy to the person on her left in a positive way and to the person on her right in a negative way.

Preschool children (67 children were in this study), one at a time, watched the video. We didn’t provide any instructions. The preschoolers simply watched it, often leaning forward and looking wide-eyed.

Then, the experimenter turned to the child and asked, “Which of these two people do you like more? Lo and behold, about two-thirds (67%) of the kids said, “Oh, I like this one,” while pointing to the person who had been treated in a positive way.

Next, the children were asked a touching question: “Here’s a toy, a stuffed animal. Who should we share this with?” The children were significantly more likely to want to share the toy with the person who was treated positively and not in a negative way. This suggests that children are catching the attitudes, prejudices, or biases of adults just by watching them.

GALINSKY: You followed that study with a second study. What did you do?

MELTZOFF: Our second study explored the spread of bias. It was set up exactly the same way with children watching videotapes. They saw the adult act positively to one person and negatively to another. Then those people disappeared and we introduced “a friend” of the person who was treated positively and “a friend” of the person who was treated negatively. We asked the children, “Who do you like more? Who would you rather share a toy with?“ Friends wore the same color t-shirts as the original actors.

The amazing thing was the children (81 preschoolers in this study) preferred the friend of the person whom the central actor had interacted with more positively. They tended to reject the friend of the person whom the central actor had treated more negatively. The children extended their positive and negative attitudes beyond the original people to the “friends.”

GALINSKY: What are the implications of these studies?

MELTZOFF: My message to policymakers, preschool teachers, caregivers, and parents is that our behavior matters to children. Children strive to understand what’s valued in their family and culture. They strive to learn who’s in the social “in-group” and who’s in our social “out-group.” We’re role models for our children, even four-year-olds.

GALINSKY: Is the message for adults to be more conscious not just about what we say, but how we act?

MELTZOFF: Yes. Our children study what we do and absorb lessons from our behavior. But children are also resilient, forgiving, and are looking for the consistent patterns in what we do. Of course, they can see us act imperfectly from time to time. But if we consistently act negatively to one group of people, or to one type of situation, they will pick up that pattern in our behavior.

By the time they’re in kindergarten, children are attuned to their social network: who’s favored, who’s not? Who’s a friend, who’s not? There will always be individual people and social groups we’re friendly with and those we don’t favor as much. But it’s up to us to ensure the individuals in our “out-groups” are not rejected, minimized, or treated in consistently negative ways. To do so would be to teach our children our social biases and prejudices—even if we don’t mean to do so.

Thanks to Vroom and Andrew Meltzoff – two amazing local resources for parents, babies and brains- for sharing this great interview on the PEPS blog!

About the Author

Vroom was born out of a need for creative tools and materials that inspire families to turn everyday moments into brain building moments. It was developed with thoughtful input from parents, early childhood experts, neuroscientists, parents and community leaders. The Bezos Family Foundation provided funding, and a lot of passion, because we believe that all parents have the potential to create a bright future for their children. Our goal is to share the science of early brain development in new ways so that all children have the chance to become thriving adults.

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