A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that children were more likely to share their resources with White children than Black children. The effect did not appear to be motivated by in-group bias nor by feelings of warmth toward White children, but by a stereotype that White people are wealthier than Black people.
Psychology research has shown that children begin to demonstrate racial bias at an early age. For example, children as young as three years old show racially-biased giving behavior, choosing to allocate more resources to White children compared to Black children. Study authors Tara M. Mandalaywala and her team say that understanding why children show this biased resource allocation is crucial since a child’s early beliefs and economic behaviors likely inform their beliefs and economic behaviors in later life. The researchers devised two experiments to test various motivations that might underlie this bias.
“I think studying how race affects young children’s resource allocations is so interesting because it provides children with a situation in which they have the opportunity to think about both moral and social motivations,” explained Mandalaywala, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of the Cognition Across Development Lab.
“In early childhood, children are well aware that they should act in a fair manner, but they’re simultaneously developing preferences for particular social groups, as well as beliefs about social groups (such as stereotypes) which can shape their expectations about how others will behave. Trying to understand how children navigate these various concerns, norms, and motivations is fascinating from a conceptual perspective, but it is also important from a more practical, applied perspective.”
“Adults show all sorts of biases in their behaviors, but we know little about how these biases develop and unfold across the lifespan,” Mandalaywala said. “Studies like this one are a first step in understanding where biases come from, with the eventual goal of understanding bias development well enough that we can intervene in childhood to slow or reduce biases before they fully form.”
Both studies were conducted among children between the ages of 4 and 7. The first sample included 91 kids, of whom 37% were White, 17% were Asian, 11% were Black or African American, 4% were Hispanic, 12% other, and 19% undisclosed. The second sample consisted of 96 children, of whom 53% were White, 11% were Black or African American, 10% were multiracial, 8% were Asian, and 6% undisclosed.
Both samples participated in a Dictator Game, a task that measures economic behavior by asking a participant how much of a limited resource they are willing to give to another person. In this particular version, children were told they had access to four exciting animal videos. For each video, the child was shown an image of another child’s face and asked whether they would like to keep the video or give it away to the other child. The other child was either European American or African American and was wearing a neutral facial expression. Each participant also rated how much they liked the other child.
Across both samples, children were more likely to give videos away to White children compared to Black children. This was true regardless of participants’ race, suggesting that the effect was not driven by an in-group bias among White participants. The effect was also unrelated to participants’ racial attitudes — while children tended to feel more warmly toward the White children, this did not explain their biased giving behavior.
In the second study only, children additionally completed a measure of racial stereotypes about wealth. The children were shown images of a Black child, a White child, an expensive-looking house, and a less expensive-looking house. They were asked to indicate which house they thought belonged to which child. The majority of the children (64%) believed the White child was more likely to live in the more expensive house. Notably, children who showed this racial stereotype about wealth showed a stronger resource allocation bias toward White faces.
In other words, children who felt that the White child lived in the expensive house were especially likely to give to the White child over the Black child. One explanation for this could be strategic — wealthier kids have more resources and may be more able to return the giving in the future. However, when the participants were asked whether they believed that the other child would share their own video with them, participants’ expectations of reciprocity were unrelated to their allocation decisions. This suggests that racial stereotypes about wealth may have driven participants to give more resources to White children, not because they felt they would receive something in return, but out of a “general abstract desire to maintain the status quo.”
“My main takeaway from this study is that 4- to 6-year old children’s decisions to share more with a hypothetical White child than with a hypothetical Black child (i.e., their racial bias) was not predicted by the factors we expected! For instance, it wasn’t that our participants liked White children better, and thus shared more with them for this reason. It also wasn’t that participants expected White children to share more with them in the future, and so shared more with White children in the present,” Mandalaywala told PsyPost.
“The only factor that predicted racial bias in children’s resource allocations was awareness of a racial stereotype about social status. Children who expressed the stereotype that White people were higher status than Black people (i.e., White people lived in more expensive looking houses) also gave more resources to a White child than to a Black child. In contrast, children who didn’t express this stereotype shared equally with White and Black children. In some ways, what we see here is that children who are aware of racial stereotypes about status are actually perpetuating these stereotypes through their own behavior.”
The authors acknowledge that their sample was limited in that it did not include sufficient numbers of racial/ethnic minority group members to explore differences among specific groups. They also note that “future work should explore how children’s costly, race-based resource allocation varies across different resource types, where there might be real consequences in refusing to share.”
“The main unanswered question in my mind is why children’s racial stereotypes have this effect on resource allocation behavior. We might have predicted that racial stereotypes relate to children’s expectations of reciprocity (e.g., how much a White or Black child will share with them in the future), and in this way shaped children’s allocation behavior. However, racial stereotypes and expectations of reciprocity were unrelated in our sample of children. Moreover, expectations of reciprocity were also unrelated to how many resources children decided to share with White and Black children,” Mandalaywala said.
“In the paper, we speculate why children’s expectations of reciprocity do not align with their beliefs about how resource-rich or resource-poor a given White or Black child was likely to be. However, I think we need much more research on the precise consequences of stereotypes in order to understand why stereotypes might affect some beliefs and behaviors (like resource allocation) without affecting others (like expectations of reciprocity).”
The study, “Why do children show racial biases in their resource allocation decisions?”, was authored by Tara M. Mandalaywala, Josie Benitez, Kaajal Sagar, and Marjorie Rhodes.