Most children naturally form racial and ethnic stereotypes. Nurtureshock made headlines last year with data revealing that even babies as young as 6 months discriminate.
New research in Nature has shown that some children don’t form racial biases. Kids with a rare condition called William’s Syndrome are apparently free of racial bias, though they form the same stereotypes about gender that neurotypical kids do.
People with William’s Syndrome don’t experience social fear the way the rest of us do. In children this leads to unusual friendliness. Adults with the condition show abnormal activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for managing social threats and negative emotional reactions.
Experimenters ran a series of simple tests with kids to suss out bias. They read them stories and asked them to identify who in a drawing was likely to be kind or naughty or brave. Typically, both black and white children associate positive traits with light-skinned characters and negative traits with dark-skinned ones.
The children with William’s Syndrome did not. They showed no racial or ethnic bias in answering the researchers questions. Conversely, they exhibited the same patterns of gender bias as their neurotypical peers.
Researchers suggest these results point to an exciting finding: that racial and ethnic stereotypes are rooted in social fear, while gender norms are not. Clearly more research is necessary to understand how this mechanism works in the brain.
In the meantime, it might give some clues to those of us interested in anti-bias education. Knowing that children’s biases are at least connected to fear can help us unpack them and defuse those early fears of the unknown.
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