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Babies are not inherently biased against people that are different to them, claims study

PHOTO: BabyCenter

We are not born with the tendency to dislike people who are different. That is according to a new study that claims discrimination against unfamiliar people is a learned trait.

Researchers looked at the reaction of babies when interacting with people who spoke both familiar and different languages. At the age of one, babies believe speakers of the same language are ‘good’.

However, they showed no expectations – good or bad – towards people who spoke an unfamiliar language. “Clearly, they are not born with this bias to expect bad things from certain people,” the researchers said.

The study builds on previous research that showed children at age three tend to discriminate against the unfamiliar – suggesting discrimination is something we learn in our early years.

The researchers conducted six experiments involving 456 infants between the ages of eight months and 16 months.

The experiments examined how quickly infants acclimatised or ‘habituated’ to either familiar or unfamiliar language speakers.

These speakers were presented through puppet shows with characters that would perform either ‘prosocial’ (giving) behaviour or ‘antisocial’ (taking) behaviour.

Across all experiments, the researchers found that, by one year of age, infants not only think of speakers of their native language as good, but they also expect them to be prosocial.

The infants appeared to be surprised when observing speakers of their native language engaging in antisocial behaviour.

Infants of this age, however, do not appear to have any positive or negative expectations of speakers of an unfamiliar language.

This suggests that negativity toward groups different from their own is likely learned after the first year of life, the researchers found.

Study lead author Ms Anthea Pun said: “Persistent discrimination and conflict across cultures has led psychologists to question whether we are naturally inclined to like people who are similar to ourselves and to dislike those who are different, or whether we are taught to feel this way.

“These findings suggest both are true: Liking people who are similar to ourselves seems to be an innate bias, but disliking those who are different is something we likely learn later.”

By one year of age, babies think that speakers of their native language are ‘good’, the research found, and expect them to be helpful and positive in their actions.

However, infants of this age do not think that speakers of unfamiliar languages are ‘bad’, and do not expect them to act negatively.

Past research has found that, by the age of three, children show positive biases toward people who are similar to them and negative biases towards those who are different.

In this study, the researchers, from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, turned their attention to infants to determine when and how these biases first emerge.

They conducted six experiments involving 456 infants between the ages of eight months and 16 months.

The experiments examined how quickly infants acclimatised or ‘habituated’ to either familiar or unfamiliar language speakers.

Habituation measures how infants process pictures and sounds presented to them. When the information meets infants’ expectations, their attention drops off at a faster rate.

By measuring infants’ rate of habituation to familiar and unfamiliar languages, the researchers measured whether infants had formed positive or negative biases.

Across all experiments, the researchers found that, by one year of age, infants not only think of speakers of their native language as good, but they also expect them to be pro-social.

The infants appeared to be surprised when observing speakers of their native language engaging in anti-social behaviour. Infants of this age, however, do not appear to have any positive or negative expectations of speakers of an unfamiliar language.

This suggests that negativity toward groups different from their own is likely learned after the first year of life, the researchers found.



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