You can change racial bias in older children

We all have biases, whether they are implicit or explicit. New research from UBC showed that it is possible to reduce racial bias in older children.

Previous studies have shown that children develop bias at an early age, is the first of its kind to look at how to reduce racial bias in children, according to a UBC press release. These biases are implicit, meaning they are involved in our attitudes and stereotypes that affect our behaviour and decisions.

The study took 369 white and Asian children between the ages of five and 12. The children were then told four fictional short stories. The first group heard four stories about black individuals contributing positively to their community and a second group heard the same stories except the main character was white. The third group heard happy stories to test whether or not people in a positive mood were more or less bias.

After hearing the story, each child took a test to measure their implicit racial bias that tested how quickly they associated pictures of black and white people with positive or negative words.

In children aged five to eight, there was no reduction in implicit racial bias and they more quickly associated negative words with black people and positive words with white people.

However, in kids aged nine to 12 the results were more heartening. This age group showed only showed an implicit racial bias when they heard the story about the white character. When they heard the story about the black character benefiting their community, they did not show a racial bias — they had no racial preference. The third group of kids, the ones who heard happy stories, showed the same racial bias the the group who heard stories about a white character.

"In nine to 12 year olds it not only reduced their race bias, it wiped it away,” said Andrew Baron, research supervisor and an associate professor of psychology at UBC.

This suggests that older kids can have their racial bias reduced or eliminated by telling them positive stories of marginalized groups.

The study’s lead author, Antonya Gonzalez, a graduate student at UBC’s department of psychology said, "This study suggests that if we want to start having a conversation about reducing implicit racial bias in adults, we need to intervene in the minds of children when prejudice first starts to take root."

The research does offer some hope into reducing peoples, especially children’s bias. In light of this, and previous work done in Baron’s lab, the psychologists think the way we teach children about discrimination could have a huge effect.

"The most potent way to educate and change society is to create circumstances where kids of privilege can experience discrimination," said Baron. "That kind of emotional experience is really important for kids to deal with and internalize to understand that discrimination is not just something that other people do, or that’s in our history book, but that it’s something we all have the potential to do."

Changing bias in adults requires repeated, sustained intervention, and just acknowledging these biases can be a powerful first step.

"I really invite anyone who is interested in understanding unconscious race bias to take this test that’s freely available by Harvard University," said Baron. "It’s a great resource just to start the conversation to say, 'look, there is unconscious bias, that doesn’t mean you act on it all the time but it is there.'"

Baron also suggested that thinking of bias as "implicit, automatic, split-second decisions that people” is important. "When we start to think of bias that way, we need to think about how early does it form in development and when is the best time to try and change it,” he said.

"In all of my research I’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve all got unconscious racial bias. The next question is, what do you do with that knowledge? The origins of this seems to be, from other work of mine, is that we are born to prefer what is familiar."

This research was done at UBC’s Living Lab at Science World.

Listen to Dr. Baron and Antonya Gonzalez discuss their research with CBC.