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Keywords:

  • stereotyping;
  • prejudice;
  • social cognition;
  • intervention

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice
  4. Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness
  5. Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  6. Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

By the time children start formal schooling, they endorse stereotypes and exhibit prejudice on the basis of many traits, including age, attractiveness, disability status, gender, and race. Despite the relevance of these phenomena to children's lives, as well as to understanding historical and contemporary human relations, little consensus exists about whether, when, or how to teach children about intergroup biases (i.e., stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination). In this article, we review the risks and benefits of learning about intergroup biases among elementary school children. We conclude that lessons about intergroup biases are valuable and call for additional research on how best to maximize their effectiveness for improving intergroup relations while minimizing associated risks.

Social stereotyping and prejudice mar the history of human relations: Anti-Semitism, ageism, heterosexism, racism, and sexism, to name only a few forms of intergroup bias, have produced myriad forms of oppression (and its inverse, privilege) across human history. A complete understanding of human relations requires that individuals recognize historical and contemporary forms of stereotyping and prejudice. However, consensus is lacking as to whether, when, or how children should be taught about intergroup biases.

In this article, we review the ontogenesis of intergroup bias to show its relevance to children's lives. We then review the risks and benefits of teaching elementary school children about intergroup biases, including stereotyping (i.e., ascribing attributes to others solely on the basis of membership in a particular social group), prejudice (i.e., positive or negative affective reactions to others based on their membership in a particular social group), and discrimination (i.e., biased treatment of others based on their membership in a particular social group). We conclude that lessons on intergroup biases should begin early in childhood and call on developmentalists to produce research to guide such an effort.

The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice
  4. Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness
  5. Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  6. Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

As a first step in determining whether to teach children explicitly about intergroup biases, it is useful to consider the relevance of these phenomena to children's lives. Many lay people argue that they are not, based on the belief that children are free from adults' intergroup biases. For example, many European American adults claim that children show little or no racial prejudice and therefore adopt colorblind racial socialization strategies (Pahlke, Bigler, & Suizzo, 2012). Contrary to such beliefs, young children show stereotyping and prejudice on the basis of many human traits, including race (Aboud, 2013; Bigler & Liben, 1993), gender (Liben & Bigler, 2002), age (Kwong See, Rasmussen, & Pertman, 2012), and attractiveness (Langlois et al., 2000). Socialization strategies based on avoiding conversations with children about particular forms of intergroup bias are ineffective at preventing them (Pahlke et al., 2012).

A logical corollary of the fact that children show intergroup biases is that they are often targets of stereotyping and discrimination by peers. Indeed, children often victimize peers—rejecting, bullying, or treating them unfairly—based on membership in a particular social group or failure to conform to social stereotypes (Huynh & Fuligni, 2010; Leaper & Brown, 2008; Poteat, 2007; Seaton, Neblett, Cole, & Prinstein, 2013). Thus, stereotyping and prejudice are universally relevant to children's lives.

Why do young children develop intergroup biases? Social stereotyping and prejudice arise from constructivist cognitive-developmental processes operating within environments that foster the use of certain attributes as the basis for categorizing people into groups (Bigler & Liben, 2006). Certain conditions trigger children's attention to particular human attributes (Bigler & Liben, 2006): (a) explicit labeling of social groups (e.g., “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”), (b) organization of the environment around such groups (e.g., designating male and female restrooms), and (c) social segregation (e.g., de facto gender segregation of youth activities). The absence of such conditions is thought to lead children to ignore even perceptually salient traits (e.g., hair color, height). After a particular basis of classification becomes salient, young children's (a) essentialist thought (Gelman, 2003), (b) understanding of social norms (e.g., in-group loyalty; Rhodes, 2012), (c) detection of the correlates of social groups (Bigler, Brown, & Markell, 2001), and (d) interpretation of group–attribute correlations (Cimpian & Salomon, in press) facilitate in-group favoritism and endorsement of social stereotypes. Furthermore, biases that begin small become larger as a function of children's superior memory for stereotype-consistent over -inconsistent information, biased interpretation of ambiguous information, and experiences in segregated social worlds (Banaji & Gelman, 2013).

Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice
  4. Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness
  5. Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  6. Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Although children show evidence of stereotyping and prejudice by age 3 or 4, meta-awareness of their own and others' intergroup biases emerges later in childhood (McKown & Weinstein, 2003). As a result of egocentric thought, young children view their own stereotypes and prejudices as accurate and shared by others (Aboud, 2013). During middle childhood, some children understand that others endorse, and act upon, social stereotypes and prejudices (Quintana & Vera, 1999). Children who are members of minority or low-status groups become aware of stereotyping and prejudice earlier than their majority-group or high-status peers (McKown & Weinstein, 2003); their precociousness may be a result of their experiences as targets of intergroup bias (Brown & Bigler, 2005; Sellers, Caldwell, Schmeelk-Cone, & Zimmerman, 2003; Umaña-Taylor & Updegraff, 2007).

Research has also begun to examine children's understanding of societal-level and institutional forms of intergroup bias. Three studies conducted prior to President Barack Obama's election examined 5- to 10-year-olds' knowledge of and explanations for the lack of female, African American, and Latino U.S. presidents (Bigler, Arthur, Hughes, & Patterson, 2008). Most children knew that women, African Americans, and Latinos had been excluded. When asked about the cause of the homogeneity, roughly one third of children posited that broadly shared stereotypes and prejudice were responsible (e.g., “People think that girls can't be good leaders”). However, many other children explained the absence of women, African American, and Latino presidents using stereotypic reasoning (e.g., “Women are not as smart as men”), showing little knowledge of the potential role of intergroup biases in shaping leadership opportunities.

In summary, we argue that social stereotyping and prejudice are universally relevant to children's lives, and knowledge of intergroup biases is important for understanding the world. Teaching children about intergroup biases is also motivated by a desire to protect those who might be stigmatized by preparing them to recognize and confront biases, as well as the need to reform the perpetrators of intergroup bias. Teaching about intergroup biases could improve (a) intergroup relations by creating more equivalent levels of knowledge about bias across social groups, (b) individuals' understanding of historical and contemporary human relations, and (c) youth's commitment to social justice. Are these goals attainable? What are the associated risks?

Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice
  4. Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness
  5. Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  6. Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Negative Affect

Stereotyping and prejudice are emotionally laden topics. Most forms of stereotyping and prejudice are condemned by adults, and even young children consider many forms of intergroup bias (e.g., excluding a child from a party on the basis of race) morally wrong and unfair (Killen, Lee-Kim, McGlothlin, & Stangor, 2002). Therefore, learning about such topics may invoke negative emotions. However, such emotions are likely to differ across groups: Stigmatized children may experience anger toward out-group members or anxiety about their own potential victimization, whereas privileged children may experience defensiveness or guilt.

To investigate the effects of learning about racial discrimination, European American and African American elementary school children were exposed to biographical lessons about famous African Americans that either included or omitted information about racial discrimination but were otherwise identical (Hughes, Bigler, & Levy, 2007). In addition to measuring children's racial attitudes (described later), defensiveness and guilt among European American children were assessed, as were feelings of anger among African American children. Negative emotions were elevated among children who learned about discrimination, although levels of guilt and defensiveness remained relatively low. Feelings of guilt in response to the lessons were associated with positive ratings of African Americans' traits. Among African American children, lessons that included information about discrimination did not raise levels of anger toward European Americans.

The lessons used in this study (Hughes et al., 2007) included relatively mild forms of stereotyping and prejudice (e.g., teasing, exclusion). Learning about severe forms of intergroup bias (e.g., lynching) may—indeed, should—cause more negative mental states. Although the adage no pain, no gain may apply to lessons about intergroup biases, researchers and educators should investigate methods to maximize positive and minimize negative effects by, for example, providing social support for confronting bias and managing unconstructive feelings (Caughy, Nettles, & Lima, 2010; Leaper & Brown, 2008). Furthermore, research is needed to understand fully the parameters of children's emotional reactions to learning about stereotyping and prejudice, especially in their more virulent forms.

Stereotype Threat

Another possible consequence of teaching children about stereotyping and prejudice is heightened vulnerability to the effects of stereotype threat. Priming stigmatized adults' awareness of others' stereotypes hampers their performance on tasks because they are concerned that others will judge their performance as confirming of those stereotypes (e.g., Steele & Aronson, 1995). Stereotype threat also apparently operates among children, although such effects are often reported for only a subset of experimental tasks (e.g., McKown & Weinstein, 2003) or age groups (e.g., Ambady, Shih, Kim, & Pittinsky, 2001), and are sometimes absent altogether. For example, three studies of elementary, middle, and high school students' mathematics performance (Ganley et al., 2013) found no stereotype threat effects—regardless of age, salience of the manipulation, or level of threat. Furthermore, stereotype threat effects can be eliminated with small changes to testing conditions (Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003), which suggests the possibility of building immunity to stereotype threat into lessons on stereotyping and prejudice themselves.

Out-Group Mistrust

Learning about intergroup biases may lead children to mistrust out-group members. Specifically, teaching children about prejudice and discrimination may expose them to social norms concerning intergroup biases of which they were previously unaware, increasing the likelihood that they will mistrust out-group members. Indeed, children exhibit stronger intergroup biases when social norms support out-group exclusion (Nesdale, Maass, Durkin, & Griffiths, 2003). Potential negative consequences of learning about prejudice are of particular concern among socially stigmatized children; heightened awareness of, and experiences with, prejudice and discrimination are associated with more out-group mistrust among stigmatized adults (e.g., racial mistrust; Smith, 2010). Researchers should determine whether knowledge of and experiences with discrimination can be prevented from undermining trust of out-group members when such trust is warranted (Bigler & Wright, 2012).

Entrenched Stereotyping and Prejudice

Although few developmentalists have explored the topic, teaching children about particular intergroup biases may engender or reinforce (rather than counteract) relevant stereotypes and prejudices. Consider, for example, a European American 5-year-old who, after a Martin Luther King Day lesson on the historical treatment of African Americans, pronounced, “Boy, am I glad that I'm not Black!” Rather than internalize the intended moral of the lesson (i.e., racism is unfair), the child concluded that Blackness is undesirable. In other words, when children learn that particular groups have been viewed negatively, especially over time and by wide consensus, stereotyping and prejudice may become entrenched.

Several factors may contribute to lessons on intergroup bias backfiring, especially among children who belong to high-status groups. Young children's difficulty adopting others' perspectives may lead them to focus exclusively on the implications of such lessons for the self rather than for others (e.g., “I'm glad that I'm not Black”). In addition, children's tendency toward strongly positive self- and in-group views may lead them to underemphasize their in-group's role in perpetrating oppression. Furthermore, among children whose learning focuses (intentionally or not) on the existence rather than causes of social inequality (e.g., women are paid less than men), intergroup biases may be strengthened. Just as world theory (Lerner, 1980) and system justification theory (Jost, Banaji, & Nosek, 2004) posit that humans are intrinsically motivated to legitimize and internalize the status quo, so children who learn about social inequalities may rationalize them (see Cimpian & Salomon, in press).

However, evidence that lessons about intergroup biases engender stereotyping and prejudice among children is weak. Some interventions have increased stereotyping and prejudice (see Bigler, 1999), but most present counterstereotypic models (e.g., women firefighters, industrious African Americans) for passive processing by students. These interventions are undermined by children's impaired memory for stereotype-inconsistent information in that many children misremember such lessons as presenting stereotypical content (Bigler & Liben, 1993). Lessons about intergroup biases that make use of active learning (see Lamb, Bigler, Liben, & Green, 2009) and are explicit in their critique of the beliefs and social systems that support inequality should reduce children's social stereotyping and prejudice.

Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice
  4. Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness
  5. Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  6. Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Extrinsic Attributions for Social Group Differences

Children who know about intergroup biases may explain social group differences, particularly social inequalities, differently than their less knowledgeable peers. For example, nearly all children learn that most famous composers and political leaders have been men. However, children who know about gender bias may explain the links between males and positive attributes (e.g., musical genius, power) as a function of environmental contingencies (e.g., gender oppression) rather than as a consequence of inherent properties of the groups (Cimpian & Salomon, in press), resulting in less stereotyping and prejudice. Consistent with this view, in the study of the consequences of learning about historical racism (Hughes et al., 2007, described earlier), European American children attributed more positive, and less negative, traits to African Americans following lessons about discrimination.

Detection and Rejection of Discrimination

Teaching children about intergroup biases may also increase the likelihood that both stigmatized and nonstigmatized children recognize and challenge prejudice and discrimination, and their inverse, privilege and favoritism. Knowledge of broad cultural stereotypes is associated with perceptions of discrimination. For example, in one study, adolescent girls who reported knowing a feminist were more likely to report having been the target of sexism (Leaper & Brown, 2008). However, such data are correlational; experimental studies are needed to establish causal links between knowledge of intergroup biases and detection of discrimination. Three studies shed light on such causal processes.

The first (Pahlke, Bigler, & Green, 2005) examined young adolescents' responses to learning about historical gender discrimination. Students were randomly assigned to receive either standard biographical lessons about historical figures (standard condition) or nearly identical lessons that included information about gender discrimination (discrimination condition); other students did not receive lessons (control condition). At immediate posttest, students in the discrimination condition reported greater awareness of gender discrimination than their peers in the standard condition, and girls (but not boys) in the discrimination condition reported an increased desire to confront gender discrimination.

Similar advantages to learning about sexism were seen in a study that examined the effect of explicit lessons about sexism on 5- to 10-year-olds' motivation to confront peers' sexist behavior (Lamb et al., 2009). Children participated in lessons that involved either rehearsing retorts to sexist comments (e.g., “You can't say that boys [girls] can't play!”; practice condition) or being exposed to retorts to sexist comments via short stories (narrative condition). Children in the practice condition were more likely to remember and use the modeled retorts—both in hypothetical scenarios and when actually confronted with a sexist peer—than children in the narrative condition.

Another study (Pahlke, Bigler, & Martin, in press) compared lessons about sexism (e.g., gender exclusion) with similar lessons that focused on antisocial behaviors (e.g., peer exclusion) broadly. Explicit lessons about sexism improved children's ability to detect and confront gender biases above and beyond the effects of lessons that advocated prosocial behavior more generally. In all three studies, children showed improved detection and challenging of gender bias 6 months after training, suggesting that such strategies have lasting effects.

Although these studies are promising, several caveats are important to note. First, children's stereotyping often persists even as their ability to detect and confront biases increases (Lamb et al., 2009; Pahlke et al., in press). Second, resistance to lessons about intergroup biases is apparently greater among children privileged by intergroup biases than among their stigmatized peers, possibly as a result of their increased motivation to view the status quo as fair. Third, young children's inability to understand time may distort their understanding of lessons on historical intergroup biases. For example, after listening to his mother explain the historical genocide of Native Americans, one young child inquired, “Did you kill any Indians?”

Protection of Self-Esteem Among Stigmatized Children

Increased awareness of stereotyping and prejudice may improve stigmatized children's self- and group-esteem. With respect to self-esteem, knowledge of intergroup biases may lead stigmatized children to attribute negative evaluations from others to intergroup biases (Brown, Bigler, & Chu, 2010; Crocker & Major, 1989). With respect to group-esteem, knowledge of intergroup biases may lead stigmatized individuals to reject essentialist explanations of observed links between their in-group and negative traits (and conversely, out-groups and positive traits). For example, when asked why the United States has never had a Latino president, some Latino children endorsed essentialist explanations (e.g., “Because Whites are better presidents”; see Bigler et al., 2008, p. 96). Latino children who are knowledgeable about racism may reject the notion that an absence of Latino leaders reflects their in-groups' innate inferiority, thereby bolstering their group-esteem. Indeed, stigmatized children's self- and group-esteem may be strengthened by an awareness of their in-group's collective, historical fight against oppression (Patterson, Pahlke, & Bigler, 2013).

Consistent with this view, in a study in which middle-school girls were shown presentations designed to increase their interest in science (Weisgram & Bigler, 2007), some girls viewed presentations that included information about the history of discrimination against women in science fields (discrimination condition), while others viewed similar presentations that omitted information about discrimination (standard condition). Girls in the discrimination condition felt more efficacious and optimistic about overcoming barriers to work within science fields than girls in the standard condition.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice
  4. Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness
  5. Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  6. Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Learning about stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination is inevitable for most youth; it is a vital part of understanding history (e.g., causes of World War II) and a necessity for children who are the targets of these phenomena. Lessons about intergroup biases can promote positive intergroup relations, beginning in early childhood (Hughes & Bigler, 2007). Developmentalists must continue to study youth's short- and long-term responses to learning about differing forms of intergroup bias, with an eye toward documenting individual and developmental differences in children's affective and cognitive reactions to such lessons. At the same time, using empirically supported practices, parents, schools, and communities must devote time and energy to teaching children about anti-Semitism, ageism, heterosexism, sexism, racism, and other intergroup biases to achieve a more socially just world.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Ontogenesis of Social Stereotyping and Prejudice
  4. Stereotype and Prejudice Consciousness
  5. Risks Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  6. Benefits Associated With Learning About Intergroup Biases
  7. Conclusion
  8. References