The findings provide important implications for efforts to reduce children's racial prejudice early in life, researchers note.
"We wanted to examine whether social norms and children's concern with presenting themselves positively affected their racial and national attitudes," explained lead researcher Adam Rutland, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Kent in England. "The aim was to advance our theoretical understanding of childhood prejudice and so inform attempts to design effective interventions to reduce children's prejudice."
Together with another colleague from the University of Kent and colleagues from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Dr. Rutland conducted two studies. In both studies, some of the children were videotaped and some weren't. If they were videotaped, they were told other adults or teachers would see the tape. This varied the degree to which the children thought they would be accountable for their responses.
The first study, involving 155 white British children in three age groups (6 to 8, 10 to 12, and 14 to 16), examined whether children attempt to present a positive image of themselves by controlling their racial bias and prejudice. The second study included 134 white British children of the same ages. It was designed to test whether British children suppressed their explicit national intergroup bias towards Germans. Previous research has shown that British school children perceive Germans as a salient "out-group" and are willing to express bias towards them within a group.
Both studies showed that children below 10 years old were externally motivated to control their in-group bias when held accountable for their actions (i.e., the children in the videotaped groups). The first study also demonstrated that children who were not spontaneously aware of norms against expressing racial prejudice suppressed their racial prejudice when held accountable.
In contrast, children in the second study didn't suppress their explicit national prejudice under high accountability. In fact, the 10-to-12 year olds increased their national in-group bias when they were videotaped.
"These findings indicate that suppression of prejudice towards adults is closely related to social norms in the children's social environment," said Dr. Rutland. Thus, he notes, instead of facing the challenge of individually changing children's attitudes, these studies suggest that changing the normative climate in children's social environment can induce significant attitude change.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 6, Issue 2, Social Norms And Self-Presentation: Children's Implicit And Explicit Intergroup Attitudes by Rutland A, Cameron L (University of Kent, UK) and Milne A and McGeorge P (University of Aberdeen, Scotland). Copyright 2005 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.