What Kids Can Teach Us

Social Sciences4 MIN READ

Unlike adults, children judge people based on their actions, not race

By Kardelen Koldas '15
June 23, 2020

Think of a jury made up of grown-ups versus three- to eight-year-olds. Which one would more objectively judge the actions of people of different races?

The kids’ jury, according to findings by Professor of Psychology Martha Arterberry, an expert on infant, child, and adult cognition and perception.

In their study, Arterberry and coauthors Brittany Hughes ’12 and Barbara Mejia ’14 tested how children judged the actions of characters in an illustrated storybook about a boy who won’t share his toys and a girl who helps him when he becomes trapped under those toys. 

Using Photoshop, the authors created two versions of the book, one where the boy was black and the girl was white, and another with skin colors reversed. Fifty three- to five-year-olds and 33 six- to eight-year-olds (mostly Caucasian) from Central Maine were shown only one version, then decided how mean or nice these characters were. From a scale created by the researchers, children decided whether the boy and girl should be rewarded with a new toy or a hug, punished by a timeout or no dessert, or receive nothing as a consequence for their actions.

The results showed what researchers don’t often see in other age groups: Regardless of the characters’ race, the mean boy received the harshest punishment, and the nice girl earned a positive reward. “I actually think it’s a good-news story,” said Arterberry. “At least in these children in Maine, they didn’t have implicit or explicit biases about the kinds of behaviors that people engage in based on their skin color.”

In contrast, previous research showed that children from age 10 into adulthood have expectations for different types of behavior based on skin color or membership in a racial group, Arterberry explained. “We often referred to these as implicit biases, because a person may not overtly say, ‘Oh, that person’s X, and so they must be horrible, or they’re Y and they must be better.’” Although people consciously know that they probably shouldn’t be thinking that way, these implicit biases are part of how they’ve been shaped. 

“I actually think it’s a good-news story. At least in these children in Maine, they didn’t have implicit or explicit biases about the kinds of behaviors that people engage in based on their skin color.”

Professor of Psychology Martha Arterberry

What’s also well documented in the literature, Arterberry noted, is that people who serve on juries have biases toward different groups, such as having greater expectations for violent behavior from blacks versus whites, thus assigning harsher penalties for black perpetrators than whites.

“How do you move from being a three-year-old who’s just judging actions,” asked Arterberry, “to a jury member who’s bringing in biases about the way people should behave or should be punished based on what they did, given their race?” It’s an open question waiting to be answered. 

“The prevailing idea is [that] children need to be taught to be racist—that’s generally what we think,” she said, adding that she’s not familiar with any research that’s teased this out. While many say exposure to different groups helps children to not become racist, Arterberry also thinks it’s crucial how different groups are discussed in the home as well as what positive and negative images children see in the media, storybooks, or games.  

“I think we really need to understand that process of how children are being socialized and how they’re acquiring these ideas,” she said, “so that we can intervene and make this society a better place.”