Skip to main content

How Preschoolers Are Absorbing the Biases of Their Elders

New research finds that prejudice against black males can be detected as early as age four.
Kids multiracial

"These findings underscore the importance of addressing bias even before children reach kindergarten," Perszyk and her colleagues conclude.

"Careful the things you say: Children will listen," Stephen Sondheim warned audiences in his fairy-tale musical Into the Woods. New research suggests kids are indeed watching and listening to the adults around them—and picking up their prejudices.

A just-published study found "a strong and consistent pro-white bias" among a racially diverse group of four-year-olds in suburban Chicago.

The results "showcase young children's exquisite sensitivity to the interactions they observe in the world around them," writes lead author Danielle Perszyk, a psychologist at Northwestern University.

Perszyk and her colleagues argue that children, being "astute observers of the social world," gradually become "attuned to social category labels, social status, and the biases exhibited by family members," whether these biases are openly discussed or merely implied.

In the journal Developmental Science, the researchers describe two studies, the first of which featured 30 four- and five-year-olds living in or near Evanston, Illinois. Sixty-three percent were white, 37 percent non-white.

Accompanied by a member of the research team, each child was exposed to 64 pairs of images. Each pair consisted of the smiling face of a young boy or girl, followed by a Chinese character (which was chosen to be a neutral image). The child rated each character as "nice looking" or "not nice looking."

The children gave the Chinese characters higher marks when they followed white rather than black faces. Their lowest marks were reserved for those that followed the faces of African-American boys.

The second study was similarly designed, except it used a different group of 30 children and a separate set of images: Instead of smiling, like the children pictured in the first study, these kids had neutral expressions. The results were exactly the same as in the first study.

In addition, these kids were asked directly how much they liked or disliked the child in each photo. The researchers found that both white and non-white children "favored white targets significantly over black targets."

"These findings underscore the importance of addressing bias even before children reach kindergarten," Perszyk and her colleagues conclude. It appears that information about race, gender, and relative status finds its way into kids' developing brains even before they learn to read and write.

Another piece of new research, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, reveals a similarly significant linguistic bias. "It's common knowledge that adults unconsciously discriminate against others based on the way they speak," said lead author Melissa Paquette-Smith of the University of California–Los Angeles. "We wanted to understand when, how, and why these biases develop."

The how and why remain murky, but the when is now clear: very early indeed. In one study, 64 five- and six-year-olds in the Toronto area, all of whom spoke Canadian-accented English, listened to the voices of two peers—one of whom spoke with a Canadian accent, and a second who spoke English with a British accent. They were then asked which of the children they would like to be friends with.

Unsurprisingly, they were more likely to choose the child who sounded Canadian. The more striking finding was that this held true even among kids who were regularly exposed to different accents in their families and/or their neighborhoods. Familiarity aside, they still preferred to pal around with someone who sounded like them.

Bias in kids isn't especially easy to measure, and not all research points in this dispiriting direction. A 2018 study, using very different methodology, concluded that five- and six-year-olds largely reject the notion that an individual's personality and abilities are determined by the color of their skin.

Nevertheless, these latest findings suggest that biases of all kinds reinforce themselves quite rapidly in the next generation. They also suggest that immigrants from Latin America face a double whammy of prejudice.

If we have been programmed since early childhood to prefer white skins and accents that match our own, no wonder so many Americans are open to the call for a wall.