Acquiring Group Bias

Observing other people's non-verbal signals can create social group biases, so how do you curtail this type of learning to encourage more egalitarian views? ⎮ 5 min 30 sec read

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Can biases against groups be spread via nonverbal signals? We tested this question in a series of studies recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled Acquiring group bias: Observing other people’s nonverbal signals can create social group biases. This series of studies was carried out when I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, working with Kristina Olson and Andrew Meltzoff. Now, I am an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia and the Director of the Georgia Attitude, Bias, and Behavior Acquisition Lab.

What inspired your career in psychology in the Science of Learning space?

I initially became interested in the science of learning when I took a developmental psychology course in graduate school. There, I learned that children often start showing biases based on social group memberships (e.g., gender or race) at very early ages, typically by 3- or 4-years-old. This led me to wonder where children learn these biases and what factors might contribute to their development.  

Why did you decide to investigate this topic? 

Previous research had shown that children’s attitudes toward existing social groups, such as people of different races, could be influenced by the nonverbal signals that children observed being directed toward members of those groups. Building upon this work, I wanted to know whether children could actually acquire biases toward unfamiliar individuals and groups from the nonverbal signals that they observed being directed toward them. In other words, I wanted to know whether nonverbal signals could provide a means through which social biases could be unintentionally transmitted to children. 

What did your study reveal?

In this most current study, we tested whether preschool children would acquire biases against large groups of people (e.g., those of the same nationality) based on the nonverbal signals that they saw directed toward a single member of each group. To do this, we presented 4- and 5-year-old children with a video in which one person displays valenced (positive or negative) nonverbal signals toward two other people. One person was said to be from a place called “Blackpine” and the other was said to be from a place called “Redvale.” In the video, the person in the center of the screen spoke to one of the people in a cold and contemptuous tone but spoke to the other in a warm and friendly tone. We then asked children how they felt about each of the individuals and their larger groups. Our findings indicated that children favored the group whose member received more positive nonverbal signals in the video. We also found a tendency for children to favor the label (for an unfamiliar object) provided by members of the group that received positive nonverbal signals and show greater interest in interacting with members of that group. 

From your observations, does this type of learning have positive or negative consequences on children long term?  

I think that this type of learning, through observation of others’ nonverbal signals, is highly adaptive and efficient. Therefore, in that sense, this type of learning is positive. However, my work really focuses on how these types of learning shortcuts can potentially lead us astray, leading our children to develop biases and prejudices when we might prefer to be instilling egalitarian attitudes. Nonetheless, recognizing that children (and adults) do learn in this way is helpful for developing strategies and planning interventions to curtail the spread of bias and promote more egalitarian attitudes.  

Does peer group pressure at school influence children's behaviour more as compared to adults?

Peer pressure is not something that I have studied in my work, but we do note evidence from other work in our paper indicating that children are increasingly influenced by peers as they get older. Based on this we speculated that as children get older they may become increasingly likely to catch nonverbal biases from their peers, and decreasingly likely to catch biases from adults - such as parents and teachers. 

What is the future for this field of research? 

I see a couple of important areas for future investigation. One is to examine the spread of bias and its implications within real-world social contexts. For example, examining whether the nonverbal signals that children are exposed to in their day-to-day social environments (e.g., from their parents) can be used to predict their social attitudes. In our studies we observed that children were more likely to imitate the words and actions of the nonverbally preferred group, which suggests that nonverbal signals may lead children to be more likely to emulate the actions and cultural practices of some groups relative to others. This suggests that we might see children favor cultural markers such as the music, food, or attire of nonverbally-preferred social groups. Relatedly, given that children who observed negative nonverbal signals directed toward members of a group went on to avoid interacting with members of that group, it is important to consider how this could further perpetuate biases by eliminating opportunities for contact. In addition, this demonstration of behavior avoidance could go on to influence the attitudes of others in the social environment. 

A second important area for future investigation has to do with how we might intervene to prevent the nonverbal spread of biases. Previous work has shown that children are highly influenced by the explicit information that we provide to them about other individuals, thus merely providing some positive information about the targets of negative nonverbal signals might go a long way. There is also evidence that educating children about historical prejudice and inequality can reduce their biases, thus this might also be a promising direction for future intervention studies. 

Allison Skinner

Assistant Professor, University of Georgia