Do babies show bias? Researchers seek the roots of racism

Studies suggest racial bias begins within months of birth. But does that mean people carry it for the rest of their lives?

By 6 months, some 'attach negativity to people they're not familiar with,' scientist says

Some recent studies suggest babies may begin to group people into 'us' and 'them' when they are just a few months old. But not all researchers agree very young children exhibit racial bias. (sirtravelalot/Shutterstock)

Is your brain racist? 

The answer may not be simple.

For decades, sociologists and scientists have been studying racism and racial bias. And it turns out, human brains may be at the root.

There are two types of bias: explicit, which is obvious, and implicit, where preconceived ideas of which people are unaware influence their behaviour.

While people may hold the steadfast belief that they aren't racist, it's still likely they exhibit implicit bias. 

There have been many examples of how racial bias creeps into everyday life, from hiring practices to police actions to basketball.

There's even a test for it, the Implicit Association Test. Developed by researchers at Harvard University, it measures people's automatic associations between concepts and evaluations.

The test measures responses when sorting black and white faces while connecting them with words. The key is hesitation. A person may try to associate good with a particular race, but it might take them longer to respond, a sign that subconsciously, a person's brain associates unpleasantness with a particular race.

Babies' brains

So when do people begin to exhibit signs of racial bias? Some studies suggest it begins when babies are mere months old.

Kang Lee, a developmental neuroscientist who studies social cognition and behaviour at the University of Toronto, has done several studies on racial bias. 

They don't attach negativity to people they're not familiar with. But by six months of age they start to do that.—  Kang Lee, University of Toronto

Most recently, Lee published two studies in the journal Child Development. One study suggested that racial bias may be present in babies between six and nine months old

The study concluded that between these ages, babies begin to associate faces from their race with pleasant music and faces from other races with sad music.

"Basically, at three months of age, they like to look at things that are familiar, like food," Kang said. They like familiar formula or prefer to hear their mother's voice over someone else's.

"This is purely experiential and based on perception cues," he siad. "But there is no bias; they don't attach negativity to people they're not familiar with. But by six months of age they start to do that."

In his second study, Lee concluded that babies are more likely to learn faster from people of their own race than from others.

The tendency to prefer own-race faces, or associate them with pleasant experiences, may be left over from early human evolution, Lee said. Before globalization, humans existed in more homogenous societies. They rarely encountered those from other races, and when they did, often they'd battle over food or territory.

Another researcher disagrees

But not everyone agrees that children so young exhibit racial bias. Andrew Baron, an associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia, has also extensively studied bias. He doesn't believe children just months old are necessarily exhibiting racial bias.

Many of the tests for babies, including Lee's, measures the time a baby looks at an individual. But Baron says that's not a fair measure.

"They look at things they like," Baron said. "Total looking time doesn't tell you what they're thinking. In [Lee's] study, they reported longer looking time, but there's no reason to think that longer is due to race."

Instead, they could be looking longer because an object is new to them, he said.

"My take is that it could be that own race is paired with positive," Baron said. "But they could be looking at other race because it's new and strange; there could be other interpretations."

Reversing the process

Children's apparent preferences for those of their own race don't necessarily last, and they don't mean the babies will become racist.

But there are ways to limit racial bias in children.

"Introduce kids to have experiences with other-race individuals, either face-to-face or with media," Lee suggests. Parents could also avoid labelling people by race.

Exposing children to different races at an early age could help eliminate racial bias, University of Toronto researcher Kang Lee says. (Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

It's tricky; People may want to celebrate diversity by highlighting other cultures. However, this just makes children categorize people by groups, Lee said.

For example, Singapore, which is highly diverse, celebrates Racial Harmony Day when, among other activities, schoolchildren are encouraged to wear traditional costumes.

Lee said his studies found that before children encounter this day at school, many didn't see other-race kids as different. But afterward, they tended to make distinctions.

"We can't get to a place where kids aren't racially biased, because we tend to use these labels all the time," he said. 

There may be an argument that people should celebrate differences. Baron said that may just mean teaching them that other-race individuals have positive associations just as their own race does.

An article in Psychology Today suggests several ways adults can change their behaviour once they recognize their own racial bias. They can contrast negative stereotypes with examples that challenge their biases, try to see a situation or the world from the other person's perspective and engage in positive interactions with other racial groups.

And while all people may harbour some sort of racial bias, Lee says, "Bias does not necessarily translate into discrimination."

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.