Understanding Prejudice
Understanding Prejudice
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The Psychology of Prejudice: An Overview

Stereotyping Among Children

The vulnerability of children to stereotype threat implies that stereotypes are learned early in life. How early is early? Several studies have observed ingroup biases by age 3 or 4 and the development of racial and gender stereotyping soon after (Aboud, 1988; Cameron, Alvarez, Ruble, & Fuligni, 2001; Martin, Wood, & Little, 1990). One Israeli investigation even documented anti-Arab prejudice in children as young as 2 years of age (Bar-Tal, 1996). Although it may seem hard to believe that children can distinguish among social groups at such an early age, research on gender recognition has found that children typically begin to form social categories within the first year of life. Infants are often able to discriminate between female and male faces by the age of 9 months, and sometimes as early as 5 months (Leinbach & Fagot, 1993).

There are also direct parallels in the content of stereotypes held by children and adults. Barbara Morrongiello and her colleagues convincingly illustrated this point with a pair of studies on gender stereotyping (one study with adult participants and the other with children). In the first study, mothers watched videotapes of a child engaged in risk-taking behaviors and were asked to (1) stop the videotape when they would normally intervene, and (2) say whatever they would normally say to their own child in such a situation (Morrongiello & Dawber, 2000). In keeping with gender stereotypes of girls as needing to be protected, the results indicated that mothers of daughters stopped the tape sooner and more frequently than did mothers of sons. Moreover, mothers of daughters were more likely to verbalize warnings about the risk of injury, whereas mothers of sons were more likely to encourage risk-taking behavior. This gender bias is similar to the finding that mothers underestimate the crawling ability of female infants and overestimate the crawling ability of male infants, even when no actual differences exist (Mondschein, Adolph, & Tamis-LeMonda, 2000).

  Sample drawings used by Morrongiello, Midgett, and Stanton (2000)
Figure 3. Sample "high risk" drawings used by Morrongiello, Midgett, and Stanton (2000) in their study of children's risk perception.
As disconcerting as these results are for mothers, there is no reason to suppose that fathers would fare differently; decades of research have documented gender stereotypes among both men and women (Swann, Langlois, & Gilbert, 1999; Tavris, 1992). But what about children? In a second study, Morrongiello and her colleagues found that children 6-10 years of age mirror adults by displaying the same stereotype of girls as vulnerable to injury (Morrongiello, Midgett, & Stanton, 2000). In this experiment, children were presented with drawings of a girl or boy engaged in one of four play activities. Half of the drawings depicted a child smiling confidently, and half showed the child looking wary. In addition, each activity was presented in one of four ways: as having no risk, low risk, moderate risk, or high risk (see Figure 3). For example, in one series a child was pictured sitting safely on a swing (no risk), sitting on a swing while holding a can of soda (low risk), crouching with feet on the swing (moderate risk), or standing on the swing with shoes untied (high risk). In all, each participant in the study was shown a set of 64 drawings (4 activities x 4 levels of risk x 2 facial expressions x 2 genders of the child depicted = 64 drawings) and asked to sort the drawings by how much risk of injury there was. The results: Girls and boys both tended to rate the risk of injury as greater for girls than boys, even though in reality boys routinely experience more injuries than do girls.


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