Babies are racist, sexist, etc.

I heard about this study on a podcast a while back, but I really like this nice summary in the Atlantic.  Short version: in watching a puppet show, babies preferred puppets that were mean to puppets that were dissimilar from themselves.  If the baby preferred graham crackers they were happy to see a puppet being mean to a green bean preferring puppet.  And vice versa.  Oh, we’re mean from the beginning, us humans.

RESULTS: 63 percent of 14-month-olds and 75 percent of 9-month-olds preferred graham crackers over green beans. (Science!) 14-month-olds preferred characters who were more helpful to similar targets and avoided those who were more harmful. In the dissimilar-target condition, in contrast, 14-month-olds showed the opposite preferences: They preferred characters who were more harmful to the dissimilar target, and avoided those who were more helpful. “A developmental trend was observed, such that 14-month-olds’ responses were more robust than were 9-month-olds’.”

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At no age did the babies prefer helpers (or harmers) across the board — the puppet’s attributes seemed to determine how the baby felt about it being helped or harmed.

IMPLICATIONS: The authors conclude, “These findings suggest that the identification of common and contrasting personal attributes influences social attitudes and judgments in powerful ways, even very early in life.” My immediate reaction is that this invokes all societal ills; racism, sexism, foodie-ism, and every other sort of discrimination against those dissimilar to us, at least partly as inborn instincts to overcome. The paper does note that “there was no effect of puppet color.” And again, as much as one could potentially make of this, it’s babies watching puppets eat graham crackers.

It may be just graham crackers, but I think it is pretty clear there’s something quite real here.  I’m sure the psychology research on stereotypes has advanced plenty in the 17 years since I’ve had a course on it, but what I remember from the time–and surely still holds true– is that stereotyping is our brain’s natural tendency and we have to actively work against it.   Anyway, it seems pretty clear that many less desirable human traits are not a product of culture, but rather are innately human.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Babies are racist, sexist, etc.

  1. itchy says:

    My hunch is that you’re correct, but, wow, this seems like a huge general conclusion to draw from such a narrow study!

    I despise sweet potatoes. I would have no problem supporting a puppet who — by whatever means necessary — hinders sweet-potato-planting puppets from seeding our earth with that scourge.

    I do not think that makes me racist against sweet-potato-loving puppets. Just against sweet potatoes.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Actually, I’d say that the evidence that our “ism”s are pretty innate is quite strong. This study just uses a pretty creative way to try and push back how early we can actually see evidence of this.

  2. Pingback: Are We Born Tribal? | Tarheel Red

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