Media Releases

Infants show racial bias toward members of own race and against those of other races

April 11, 2017

Racial bias begins earlier than previously thought, new insights into cause

Toron­to, ON – Two stud­ies by researchers at the Ontario Insti­tute for Stud­ies in Edu­ca­tion (OISE) at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to and their col­lab­o­ra­tors from the US, UK, France and Chi­na, show that six- to nine-month-old infants demon­strate racial bias in favour of mem­bers of their own race and racial bias against those of oth­er races.

In the first study, “Old­er but not younger infants asso­ciate own-race faces with hap­py music and oth­er-race faces with sad music”, pub­lished in Devel­op­men­tal Sci­ence, results showed that after six months of age, infants begin to asso­ciate own-race faces with hap­py music and oth­er-race faces with sad music.

In the sec­ond study, “Infants rely more on gaze cues from own-race than oth­er-race adults for learn­ing under uncer­tain­ty”, pub­lished in Child Devel­op­ment, researchers found that six-to eight-month-old infants were more inclined to learn infor­ma­tion from an adult of his or her own race than from an adult of a dif­fer­ent race.

(In both stud­ies, infants less than six months of age were not found to show such bias­es).

Racial bias begins at younger age, with­out expe­ri­ence with oth­er-race indi­vid­u­als 

“The find­ings of these stud­ies are sig­nif­i­cant for many rea­sons,” said Dr. Kang Lee, pro­fes­sor at OISE’s Jack­man Insti­tute of Child Study, a Tier 1 Cana­da Research Chair and lead author of the stud­ies. “The results show that race-based bias already exists around the sec­ond half of a child’s first year.  This chal­lenges the pop­u­lar view that race-based bias first emerges only dur­ing the preschool years.” Hear Dr. Lee dis­cuss the research results.

Researchers say these find­ings are also impor­tant because they offer a new per­spec­tive on the cause of race-based bias.

“When we con­sid­er why some­one has a racial bias, we often think of neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence he or she may have had with oth­er-race indi­vid­u­als.  But, these find­ings sug­gest that a race-based bias emerges with­out expe­ri­ence with oth­er-race indi­vid­u­als,” said Dr. Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao, first author of the two papers and post­doc­tor­al fel­low at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty.

This can be inferred because pri­or stud­ies from oth­er labs have indi­cat­ed that many infants typ­i­cal­ly expe­ri­ence over 90 per cent own-race faces. Fol­low­ing this pat­tern, the cur­rent stud­ies involved babies who had lit­tle to no pri­or expe­ri­ence with oth­er-race indi­vid­u­als.

“These find­ings thus point to the pos­si­bil­i­ty that aspects of racial bias lat­er in life may arise from our lack of expo­sure to oth­er-race indi­vid­u­als in infan­cy,” Dr. Lee said.

Study results could be sig­nif­i­cant in pre­ven­tion of racial bias

He con­tin­ued to explain that over­all, the results of these stud­ies are crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant giv­en the issues of wide-spread racial bias and racism around the world.

“If we can pin­point the start­ing point of racial bias, which we may have done here, we can start to find ways to pre­vent racial bias­es from hap­pen­ing,” he said.

“An impor­tant find­ing is that infants will learn from peo­ple they are most exposed to,” added Dr. Xiao, indi­cat­ing that par­ents can help pre­vent racial bias by, for exam­ple, intro­duc­ing their chil­dren to peo­ple from a vari­ety of races.

First study: Face-race and music

In the first study, infants from 3 to 10 months of age watched a sequence of videos depict­ing female adults with a neu­tral facial expres­sion. Before view­ing each face, infants heard a music clip. Babies par­tic­i­pat­ed in one of the four music-face com­bi­na­tions: hap­py music fol­lowed by own-race faces, sad music fol­lowed by own-race faces, hap­py music fol­lowed by oth­er-race faces, and sad music fol­lowed by oth­er-race faces. The study found that infants at six to nine months of age looked longer at own-race faces when paired with hap­py music as opposed to with sad music. By con­trast, six- to nine-month-olds looked longer at oth­er-race faces when paired with sad music com­pared to with hap­py music.

Sec­ond study: Face-race and learn­ing

The sec­ond study exam­ined whether infants were biased to learn from own-race adults ver­sus oth­er-race adults. Six to eight-month-old infants saw a series of videos. In each video, a female adult looked at any one of the four cor­ners of the screen. Fol­low­ing the look, in some videos, an ani­mal image appeared in the looked-at loca­tion (a reli­able gaze). In oth­er videos, an ani­mal image appeared at a non-looked-at loca­tion (an unre­li­able gaze). The results showed that six to eight-month-old infants fol­lowed the gaze of mem­bers of their own race more than they fol­lowed the gaze of oth­er-race indi­vid­u­als. This occurred when the faces were slight­ly unre­li­able, as they are in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. This result sug­gests that, under uncer­tain­ty, infants are biased to learn infor­ma­tion from own-race adults as opposed to oth­er-race adults.

Racial bias can ‘per­me­ate almost all of our social inter­ac­tions’

Dr. Lee said it’s impor­tant to be mind­ful of the impact that racial bias has on our every­day lives, stress­ing that not only is explic­it bias a con­cern, but so too are implic­it forms.

“Implic­it racial bias­es tend to be sub­con­scious, per­ni­cious, and insid­i­ous. It per­me­ates almost all of our social inter­ac­tions, from health care to com­merce, employ­ment, pol­i­tics, and dat­ing. Because of that, it’s very impor­tant to study where these kinds of bias­es come from and use that infor­ma­tion to try and pre­vent racial bias­es from devel­op­ing,” he said.


Dr. Kang Lee
Pro­fes­sor, Dr. Eric Jack­man Insti­tute for Child Study, OISE/University of Toron­to
Email:   (Email best way to reach Dr. Lee to set up inter­view)

Naiqi (Gabriel) Xiao
Post­doc­tor­al Researcher, Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty
Phone: +1–609-608‑6248

Media Rela­tions Coor­di­na­tor
Lind­sey Craig
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions & Media Rela­tions Coor­di­na­tor, OISE/University of Toron­to
Phone: 416–978-1127