Are babies prejudiced?

In 1994, in discussing how children come to learn about inheritance, Susan Carey and Elizabeth Spelke wrote: “There are many ways children may come to resemble their parents: Curly-haired parents may have curly-haired children because they give them permanents; prejudiced parents may have prejudiced children because they taught them to be so. Such mechanisms are not part of a biological process of inheritance…”

It’s not clear that Carey & Spelke thought prejudice is taught to chidren rather than inherited through genes, but it’s interesting that in picking only two examples of non-biological inheritance, Carey & Spelke chose prejudice as one. What makes this quotation remarkable is how unremarkable it is. It seems quite natural to assume that prejudice is learned. Recently, however, a number of researchers — including Spelke — have been suggesting that although the specifics of a prejudice may come through experience, being prejudice is innate.

(Just to be clear, nobody I know is saying that prejudice is natural, good, or something that cannot be overcome. The specific claim is that it isn’t something you have to learn.)

It’s actually been known for a few years that infants prefer to look at familiar-race faces. Very recently, Katherine Kinzler in the Spelke lab at Harvard has started looking at language prejudice. People can get very fired up about language. Think about the fights over bilingualism or ebonics in the US. Governments have actively pursued the extinction of various non-favored, minority languages.

In a long series of studies, Kinzler has found evidence that this prejudice against other languages and against speakers of other languages is innate. Young infants prefer to look at a person who previously spoke their language than somebody who spoke a foreign language. Infants show the same preference to somebody who speaks with their accent rather than with a foreign accent. Older infants (who can crawl), will crawl towards a toy offered by someone who speaks their language rather than towards a toy offered by a foreign-language speaker. Keep in mind that these infants probably do not understand what is being said. Also, the speakers are bilingual (the infants don’t know this), which allows the experimenters to control for things like what the speakers look like. For instance, for some babies, one speaker speaks English and the other French, and for the other babies, they reverse. Also, French babies prefer French-speakers to English-speakers, while English babies prefer English-speakers to French-speakers.

Preschool children would rather be friends with somebody who speaks their own language, which is not surprising. They also prefer to be friends with somebody who uses their own accent rather than a foreign accent, even when they are able to understand what the foreign-accented child says.

Of course, none of this says that babies are born knowing which languages and accents to prefer. However, they seem to quickly work out which languages and accents are “in-group” and which are “out-group.” This also doesn’t say that linguistic prejudice cannot be overcome. For one thing, simply exposing children to many accents and language would presumably do much all by itself. Although it’s not possible yet to rule out alternative explanations, what it does suggest is that prejudice — at least, linguistic prejudice — can’t be overcome by simply not teaching it to children. They must be actively taught not to be prejudiced.

The paper, which is pretty easy to understand, is not available on the authors’ website, but if you have a decent library:

Kinzler, Dupoux, Spelke. (2007). The native language of social cognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(30), 12577-12580.



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