Children's tendency to show ethnic/racial prejudice is greater when their friends exclude individuals on the basis of race and when their peer groups felt threatened by outsiders, finds a new study published in the May/June issue of the journal Child Development.
The study, conducted by researchers from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, Universita' di Padova in Padova, Italy, and University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, was designed to examine the impact of group norms – the expectations that particular groups have concerning the appropriate attitudes, beliefs and behaviors group members should display – on the ethnic prejudice of young children who are group members. Specifically, the research focused on whether a group norm of excluding children who are different increases children's tendency to show ethnic/racial prejudice. The study also examined whether a threat from outsiders increased children's prejudice.
Such research is important because other studies find that peer groups are important and meaningful to children as young as 5. Those studies find that if there is the possibility of inclusion in a group, children seek to be included rather than excluded, and show an immediate bias in favor of their group. At the same time, children spontaneously compare their group with other groups and prefer their group to have higher status than other groups. Indeed, when the "in-group" has lower status, members are more willing to leave if an opportunity presents itself. Moreover, when children consider themselves to be members of a group, rejection or threat of rejection by the group causes a loss of self-esteem and heightened social anxiety.
To test their theory, the researchers had 197 white, Australian children aged 7 or 9 pretend they were members of a team that normally included or excluded outsiders, and that the team was threatened or not threatened by outsiders who were members of a lower status group. They also pretended that the outsiders were either of the same racial background or a different (Pacific Islander) racial background as their own group.
In addition to the findings discussed earlier, the researchers also found that when the "in-group" excluded others and was threatened by outsiders, children revealed the most prejudice.
The study also found that children showed the same level of prejudice to group outsiders, regardless of racial background. However, race did impact on the children's willingness to change groups; the children were more willing to move to the group with members of the same race. "These findings have important implications for those involved in handling children from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, such as parents, teachers and day care workers," said lead researcher Drew Nesdale, PhD, a professor at Griffith University. "They indicate that peers have an important effect on intergroup prejudice, even for very young children, and that this influence is frequently more important than that of parents and teachers.