Stereotypes start during Childhood, fix it early!

This page is a summary of a study published by the department of psychology of Saint Joseph University. 

Click on the link to access the study:


Children show signs of intergroup biases from surprisingly early ages in human development. 


Experimental studies have provided evidence of 3 to 5 years old children showing biases in favor of own‐gender and own‐race children (Cvencek, Greenwald, & Meltzoff, 2011; Hilliard & Liben, 2010; Renno & Shutts, 2015), preferring to befriend native speakers of their language versus children with foreign accents (Kinzler, Shutts, Dejesus, & Spelke, 2009).


Thus, children show knowledge about social groups and preference for some groups over others well before age 5 (Cameron, Alvarez, Ruble, & Fuligni, 2001; Cvencek, Greenwald, & Meltzoff, 2016). 


It is important to acknowledge that the content and context of stereotypes presents different challenges for different groups. For example, Renno and Shutts [2015] found that social preferences based on gender emerge earlier than those based on race. This may be because of the different meaning that gender is given in many cultures today. Diesendruck, Goldfein-Elbaz, Rhodes, Gelman, and Neumark [2013] found that children see gender as a natural- kind category that is fixed, objective and natural. Adults are more willing to state that sex differences are natural and immutable [e.g., Sax, 2005] because of the physical differences, and therefore children may have special difficulty challenging these notions compared to groups whose presumed qualities are seen as more transient. 


There are also developmental changes: Most evidence suggests that these intergroup biases increase through age seven or eight (Raabe & Beelmann, 2011).


One of the characteristics of groups that is associated with stereotypes is preferences or personal choices. Personal choice is very important to children [Lagattuta, Nucci, & Bosacki, 2010] and yet Conry-Murray [2015] found that children often assumed that all girls and all boys would prefer to receive gender-typical resources, and further, this belief predicted judgments that it was acceptable to give these groups different, and even unequal, gifts. This effect was found across ages, indicating that even the youngest (age 6) may have been considering group status and associated presumed preferences, and drawing conclusions about fairness based on that information. Older children were less likely to presume that all children’s preferences were linked to their gender, and they were more critical of unequal gendered distributions. 


When there are no assumptions that provide a reason for unequal treatment, children endorse fairness over social norms [Theimer, Killen, & Stangor, 2001]. This can be seen even in studies of young children. For example, Conry-Murray and Turiel [2012] found that children judged that personal choice should be prioritized over gender norms, when they made judgments about a story that portrayed a child who had an atypical preference (e.g. a boy wants to wear a ballet costume). This is evidence that young children use preferences to judge distributions, and responses seem to depend on their assumptions (or knowledge) about those preferences. When preferences are made explicit and are not presumed from a stereotype, children are less likely to be biased.


The sensitivity to a variety of preferences seems to increase with development [Biernat, 1991]. For example, Killen, Rutland, Abrams, Mulvey, and Hitti [2013] found that adolescents were more likely to note preferences that differed from their group expectations as compared to children in middle childhood. Further, adolescents distinguished between their own preference and preference of the group. This may be in part because as children grow they also may become more sensitive to the repercussions of defying norms. Studies have shown that even young children consider that defying norms can lead to embarrassment and that people who break norms may get teased.


Bias affects people across cultures, but different groups are the target of bias in different cultures [Quintana, 1998]. Culture can provide children with information about groups and different cultures may emphasize ingroup variability more than other.


Other research indicates that adults’ behavior sometimes supports bias formation. Adults play a role by making these group differences salient, sometimes too salient. Hillard and Liben [2010] found that a classroom where teachers emphasized gender for just a few weeks led to children being more biased. Children construct ideas about groups based on what they observe in the environment even without direct messages. Patterson and Bigler [2006] showed that salient features of the environment like T-shirt colors provided cues to children that groups differ and led to greater ingroup bias. Given that messages about some groups are pervasive in advertising, clothing, and media, even when parents and teachers promote messages of equality, children may infer that the groups are more different than similar.


Clearly experiences affect the ways both children and adults construct their knowledge of groups. 




Cross-group friendships are an opportunity for children or adults in dominant groups to get more accurate information about the experiences of those who may be habitual targets, and less contact with out- group members means fewer opportunities to correct inaccurate assumptions about them.


Cross group experience is a great way for children and adults who do not feel align with their own group values to find common values, interests and goals in other groups and feel less lonely or different. 


Dr Miao Qian, post doctoral fellow, Harvard University Ph.D, university of Toronto and Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, Psychology Teacher at Harvard University are developing a child friendly test to measure the implicit association in kids’ minds about positivity and negativity with different races. 


Stay tuned, sign up to our newsletter & follow unstereotype4me on instagram, we will let you know once it is up and running.


Find out more on Dr Miao Qian and click on the button below to read further on her work: