How to combat racial bias: Start in childhood

Racial bias can seem like an intractable problem. Psychologists and other social scientists have had difficulty finding effective ways to counter it – even among people who say they support a fairer, more egalitarian society. One likely reason for the difficulty is that most efforts have been directed toward adults, whose biases and prejudices are often firmly entrenched.

My colleagues and I are starting to take a new look at the problem of racial bias by investigating its origins in early childhood. As we learn more about how biases take hold, will we eventually be able to intervene before any biases become permanent?

Measuring racial bias

When psychology researchers first began studying racial biases, they simply asked individuals to describe their thoughts and feelings about particular groups of people. A well-known problem with these measures of explicit bias is that people often try to respond to researchers in ways they think are socially appropriate.

The kind of sorting task the Implicit Association Test presents to get at biases participants may not even be aware of. Project Implicit
Starting in the 1990s, researchers began to develop methods to assess implicit bias, which is less conscious and less controllable than explicit bias. The most widely used test is the Implicit Association Test, which lets researchers measure whether individuals have more positive associations with some racial groups than others. However, an important limitation of this test is that it only works well with individuals who are at least six years old – the instructions are too complex for younger children to remember.

Recently, my colleagues and I developed a new way to measure bias, which we call the Implicit Racial Bias Test. This test can be used with children as young as age three, as well as with older children and adults. This test assesses bias in a manner similar to the IAT but with different instructions.

Here’s how a version of the test to detect an implicit bias that favors white people over black people would work: We show participants a series of black and white faces on a touchscreen device. Each photo is accompanied by a cartoon smile on one side of the screen and a cartoon frown on the other.

Example of a screen a child would see. Gail Heyman, CC BY-ND
In one part of the test, we ask participants to touch the cartoon smile as quickly as possible whenever a black face appears, and the cartoon frown as quickly as possible whenever a white face appears. In another part of the test, the instructions are reversed.

The difference in the amount of time it takes to follow one set of instructions versus the other is used to compute the individual’s level of implicit bias. The reasoning is that it takes more time and effort to respond in ways that go against our intuitions.

Do young children even have racial biases?

Explicit racial biases have been documented in young children for many years. Researchers know that young children can also show implicit bias at the earliest ages that it has been measured, and often at rates that are comparable to those seen among adults.