Alison Gopnik at the Wall Street Journal had two striking columns recently about racial bias and the development of a moral code in children.
In the first story, Gopnik explained that studies show that the impulse to hate and fear those in other racial groups arises early.
A raft of new studies shows that even 5-year-olds discriminate between what psychologists call in-groups and out-groups. Moreover, children actually seem to learn subtle aspects of discrimination in early childhood.
In a recent paper, Yarrow Dunham at Princeton and colleagues explored when children begin to have negative thoughts about other racial groups. White kids aged 3 to 12 and adults saw computer-generated, racially ambiguous faces. They had to say whether they thought the face was black or white. Half the faces looked angry, half happy. The adults were more likely to say that angry faces were black. Even people who would hotly deny any racial prejudice unconsciously associate other racial groups with anger.
But what about the innocent kids? Even 3- and 4-year-olds were more likely to say that angry faces were black. In fact, younger children were just as prejudiced as older children and adults.
In a second column, Gopnik found research that suggests that children have an “intuitive social theory” that shapes their moral code.
[Researchers] discovered that very young kids could discriminate between genuinely moral principles and mere social conventions. First, the researchers asked about everyday rules – a rule that you can’t be mean to other children, for instance, or that you have to hang up your clothes. The children said that, of course, breaking the rules was wrong.
But then the researchers asked another question: What would you think if teachers and parents changed the rules to say that being mean and dropping clothes were OK? Children as young as 2 said that, in that case, it would be OK to drop your clothes, but not to be mean. No matter what the authorities decreed, hurting others, even just hurting their feelings, was always wrong.
Sounds like good news, right? But further questioning by the researchers showed that if an authority figure told them it was okay to be mean to someone outside their social group, then the children thought it would be acceptable.