Science & Technology

On the genius of infants: Are we really born racist?

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

It is said that the eyes are a window to the soul, but for people who study babies, the eyes are a window to the brain. Infants don’t have a wide behavioral repertoire, but one thing they do reliably is to look at things that interest or surprise them. When they get bored, they look away. This is called habituation.

Developmental psychologists have cleverly used habituation to answer all sorts of questions about the genius of babies. It turns out that even though the behavioral repertoire of babies seems limited to sleeping, eating, and soling diapers, their brains are busy growing neurons and figuring out the world. If you have ever held a baby in your arms, and seen that baby looking intently at your face and smile, you can appreciate the depth of attention and processing that babies are engaged in.

Do babies react differently when they are looking intently at the faces of people of different races?

Psychologist Phyllis Katz has cleverly used habituation to try to answer this question. Katz studied looking patterns among 6-month old infants. She first showed the babies a series of pictures, each of them of a person that was of the same race and gender (e.g., four White women). After four pictures, the babies began to habituate to the pictures, and their attention wavered. Next, Katz showed the babies a picture of a person who was of the same gender but of a different race (e.g., a Black woman), or a picture of person who was of the same race but of a different gender (e.g., a White man). The logic behind the study was that if the infants didn’t register race or gender, they wouldn’t show a different response to these new pictures– that is, they would continue to show habituation. However, if they registered a difference, the babies should dishabituate, and again look with interest at this new stimulus.

The findings clearly showed that the 6-month olds dishabituated to both race and gender cues– that is, the infants looked longer at new pictures when the pictures were of someone of a different race or gender. But some other interesting findings emerged. Among these was the finding that for both Black and White infants, the infants attended longer to different race faces when they had habitutated to faces that were of their own race.

Although these findings are difficult to interpret (as much baby behavior is), one thing that seems clear is that, even in the first six months of life, babies are aware of general patterns in their social environment, including, perhaps, the common features that their caretakers share.

The genius of babies lies in their ability to detect subtle patterns in their environment, and to use this information to direct their attention to the new stuff out there– the stuff that they are likely to learn the most from precisely because it’s new and full of wonder. But this instinct doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it interacts with parental lessons that give social meaning to the new stuff.  Parents actively tend to discourage exploration of racial differences. In a different study, Katz asked parents to simply go through a picture of book of faces with their one-year olds. She found that parents readily used gender cues to reference the pictures, but rarely used race cues to refer to the children (this was especially true of the parents of White boys). This leaves infants in a conundrum– we know that they do notice race and gender cues, but are also keenly aware of the message that there are some differences that are OK to talk about, and others that are not.

In this article, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman poignantly describe Bronson’s son’s struggles with this conundrum. And in this blog, I advocate for a strategy where we give children developmentally appropriate narratives through which to explore differences, and thus become mulitculturally savvy. It’s a skill that’s learned through doing and talking, rather than by avoiding.

The genius of babies lies in the ability to see difference and reach out — to touch that new face, to coo, to smile at this new and different person. The troublesome part lies in the ways that society then quashes that genius, and replaces it with taboo.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.

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Comments to "On the genius of infants: Are we really born racist?":
    • Ragnar

      Debunked. Racism and other in-group/out-group attitudes are innate and not learned. This is a survival mechanism critical to group dynamic (and thus survival).

      “…we discovered that macaques, like humans, automatically evaluate ingroup members positively and outgroup members negatively (Experiments 6-7). These field studies represent the first controlled experiments to examine the presence of intergroup attitudes in a nonhuman species. As such, these studies suggest that the architecture of the mind that enables the formation of these biases may be rooted in phylogenetically ancient mechanisms.”

      See the journal article here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21280966/?ncbi_mmode=std

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    • Jeremy Gibson

      I don’t see how this proves or disproves racism. It shows interest, and willing to learn from the experiment involving babies looking at pictures. It’s based on the amount of difference, not based on what the picture is therein. If you were to give a picture of a monkey’s face, they probably would have stared longer than the picture of their opposing gender, but not race.

      As you stated in another test done, that the parentals avoided certain things, making it feel uneasy to question or ask questions about certain things. Over time, obviously; can’t ask a 6-12 month old how its day has been. How exactly is that racism coming from the child and not from the lack of teaching of the adult? Teaching is an all inclusive subject, as there should never be anything taboo because understanding is the best teacher in the world.

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    • Anthony St. John

      Babies are our greatest creations. Babies give us more joy and fulfillment than anything else we create.

      Our worst failure is our failure to produce and protect acceptable quality of life for all future generations.

      Music is the greatest creation that we have produced that shall exist long after humanity has driven itself into extinction, on-board Voyager to last in perpetuity for other civilizations to discover and enjoy.

      The greatest tragedy for us today, a tragedy that other civilizations may also discover is that we failed to protect our babies so that babies can enjoy the music of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart forever because all of our institutions have failed to protect humanity from our most destructive cultural failures.

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    • Anthony St. John

      Prof. Mendoza-Denton, Thank You for highlighting this basic cultural problem that demands solutions today, during our current period of hideously dysfunctional political failures to prevent the accelerating decline of the middle class and out of control poverty that are increasingly threatening the long-term future of the human race.

      It appears that psychologists such as yourself are the most important members of our intellectual and political institutions because you have more expertise in resolving the “Us vs Them” dichotomies that are even dominating republican presidential discourse today, involving our most divisive cultural values including race, religion, class, greed, etc.

      With 7 Billion people and rapidly declining resources to support a healthy humanity we had better work together with extreme dedication and efforts to cooperate and compromise or our legacy to future generations shall most certainly be totally unacceptable.

      To make the right things happen with the required urgency we must demand and support leaders like our Founding Fathers again. We don’t seem to have any of those today, neither in Washington, nor in the United Nations.

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    • Jodi Rives

      It’s always fascinating to me when science catches up with what parents already knew/sensed. Some friends adopted an eight month-old baby from North Korea and he had only had Korean caretakers until they came along. For the first few weeks, whenever he would see one of their (very different) faces, he would cry. They started feeding and caring for him facing away from them and he was fine.

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