How do children learn stereotypes about groups of people?

    • Topic: Social Interactions

    • Location: Discovery Center

    This study asks: are stereotypes learned, or an inevitable consequence of the way our minds are wired? This study explores the conditions that affect children’s formation of stereotypes.

    Children 3-8 years old hear a story about two groups of people, the Zips and the Zaps (represented with cartoon images) engaging in either pro-social or anti-social behavior (i.e.: practicing good manners vs. cheating). Children are then asked to make judgments about whether new members from each group will perform similar or different behaviors in the future. Children participate in one of two conditions.

    In the Language Condition we examine whether the labels used for the characters (i.e.: ‘John’ vs. ‘the Zip’) affect children's behavioral expectations of new members of both groups.

    In the Self-Identity Condition children are randomly assigned to be a member of one of the two groups. This condition helps us determine whether being a member of one group affects children’s judgments about the behaviors of both groups (e.g., such as judging a member of their own group more favorably).

    The data thus far indicate that children stereotype more when the characters are labeled with group labels (i.e.: ‘the Zip’) rather than individuating labels (i.e.: ‘John’). This means that the very language we use to refer to a person affects whether children develop stereotypes. This research will help us better understand how the language that parents and other adults use can affect children’s perceptions about social groups.

    Dunham, Y., Baron, A.S., & Carey, S. (2011). Consequences of "minimal" group affiliations in children. Child Development, 82(3): 793-811.

    This research was conducted by Andrew Scott Baron, PhD, based at Harvard University.

        » Andrew Scott Baron

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Millipede Behavior

    Have your child observe the behavior of our Giant African Millipedes. Choose one millipede to start with and watch how it moves, what it eats, and where it sleeps. Next, have your child guess how the other millipedes in the enclosure will behave.

    Are your child’s predictions based on his/her prior observations of one millipede, or tailored to the behavior of individual millipedes?

    If one millipede is observed eating a cucumber, does your child expect all millipedes will eat cucumbers?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Social Group Stories

    Find a storybook that features characters of more than one kind, like The Sneetches. Use the storybook to talk with your child about stereotypes by creating little stories about what the sneetches are doing in the pictures.

    What happens if you give names to the individual characters, instead of calling them by their group names (e.g. using ‘Harry’ instead of ‘the star-bellied sneetch’)? If ‘star-bellied sneetches’ behaves badly at the beginning of your story, does your child expect that all ‘star-bellied sneetches’ behave that way?

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