US researcher given funding to study how stereotypes form in children’s brains
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US researcher given funding to study how stereotypes form in children’s brains

by Freya Lucas

May 10, 2021

US researcher and developmental psychologist Zoe Liberman has been given funding to learn more about how stereotypes form in children’s brains, aiming to reduce the impact of stereotyping, bias and racism.


Babies, Dr Liberman explained, learn early the difference between “us” and “them”, in a process known as social categorisation (the process of dividing the world into groups based on features such as gender, race and nationality).


Social catagorisation can be a useful strategy when “you’re new to the world and trying to process a flood of information with your developing brain,” and creating groups, for example learning that all animals belong in the “animal” group, but not all four legged animals are cats,  serves as an efficient learning tool for minds still learning to grasp the world around them.


This strategy can, however, become problematic when applied to gender, race, or physical features, and promote tribalism, Ms Liberman said. 


Having been given an Early CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr Liberman is poised to lay the groundwork for a better understanding of how stereotypes form in children’s brains.


She hopes her findings will inform future interventions aimed at mitigating the negative impacts of stereotyping.


“A lot of research has shown that expectations that group membership matters really does emerge early, even in infancy,” Dr Liberman said. “But sorting people, particularly unfamiliar people, into groups can be damaging if all the people in the group are presumed to have the same unfavorable characteristics simply for being in that cohort.”


Some studies have shown that favorable interactions with someone from an unfamiliar group can improve attitudes toward other members of the group, however, it isn’t always feasible for children to interact with members of all groups.


This is where Dr Liberman’s work comes in: Her research asks whether exposing young children to diversity more broadly (as opposed to one specific unfamiliar group), may also reduce the reflexive reliance on categorisation.


“The idea is that potentially growing up in a neighborhood or network that has people from different kinds of groups might make you more open to thinking that these categories aren’t as meaningful,” she explained.


To accomplish this requires a measure of diversity exposure, a novel metric Dr Liberman will develop and use to see whether differences in exposure to diversity are related to differences in stereotyping.


“The measure is based on classic work from information theory and calculates entropy: scores are higher when more groups are represented and when groups are represented in relatively more equal proportions,” she said. “We will measure diversity of neighborhoods using Census data, and of social networks using a parental survey.”


Dr Liberman’s efforts will involve working with infants, young school-aged children and their parents in a bid to understand how the children use “group cues” of race and language to categorize people, and whether that usage changes with the differences in diversity in their communities.


For instance, infants can already identify potential allies and strangers by language even before they can speak; would growing up in a multilingual environment affect their attitudes toward speakers of other languages?


“One question that I’m very interested in and that I think this research is starting to answer is about how, if there are individual differences such that children who are exposed to more diversity are less likely to form group biases, could we figure out ways to give kids these kinds of experiences, and would that have long lasting effects on the development of bias?” she said.


To read the original coverage of this story, please see here. To follow Dr Liberman’s work, see here

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