Racist Tendencies Are Not Inherent, Study Finds


Echo Chen

An accompanied child walks through the streets of New York (Photo by Echo Chen).

Carol Oliveira, Contributing Writer

A recent NYU study of five and six-year-old children reported that young kids don’t believe race influences an individual’s skills or behavior.

The study was coordinated by Dr. Tara Mandalaywala, a postdoctoral scholar at the NYU Conceptual Development and Social Cognition Laboratory.

According to the report, Mandalaywala’s team wanted to explore whether children expressed what psychology researchers call “essentialist” beliefs — a belief that members of a particular category or group share underlying identity traits that make up their essence. These beliefs, when expanded to include race and gender, run the risk of generating stereotypes.

At the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, Mandalaywala’s team recruited 203 kids who were each presented with two scenarios. In both situations, a child was born to one mother but then adopted and raised by another. In the first story, the birth and adoptive mothers were the same race but in the second story they were different races. Pictures of each mother were shown to the children in the study to make them aware of the mother’s race.

After hearing the scenarios, participants made inferences about what the children would look like or be like growing up. They were asked if the positive traits came from the child’s adoptive or birth mother.

“This scenario when there is a change in the race of the mother predicts their attitudes toward black individuals,” Mandalaywala said.

69% of the time, the response was the same even when a white child had a black adoptive mother, or when a black child had a white adoptive mother. 

For comparison purposes, 430 adults were also surveyed online. Unlike the kids, researchers found that adults were more slightly more likely to believe a person would inherit their positive traits from a birth mother of the same race, however the results were not statistically significant. 

“This more stereotypical perception is something that seems to develop later on, as a response to certain types of input,” Mandalaywala said.

For a subset of children, one parent was also surveyed. Sixty-six percent of the children participating in the study had parents who also took part in the online survey, but the responses of the children and adults did not match.

The study also found that kids who lived in more diverse neighborhoods were less likely to associate positive traits with the birth mothers. According to Mandalaywala, the influence of schools and peers couldn’t be effectively measured in this particularly study, but it could significantly influence how young children perceive race.

Mandalaywala sees hope in the findings of the study.

“Sometimes we think about stereotypes and discrimination as something that happens, that it’s hard to fight them,” she said. “But what we are finding is that the precursors to that take a lot of time to develop. So there is some hope there.”


Correction, Feb. 12: A previous version of this article referred to Mandalaywala as a visiting scholar. She is a postdoctoral scholar. The earlier version also referred to Mandalaywala’s interest in studying “essentialist behavior.” The correct term is “essentialist beliefs.” The article incorrectly referred to “69% of the children” in the story when it should have said “69% of the time.”

Additionally the earlier version said that that unlike children, adults were more likely to believe that a person would inherit their positive traits from a birth mother of the same race. While adults are slightly more likely to believe this, the difference is not statistically significant. An earlier version of this version incorrectly quoted Mandalaywala as saying, “This more stereotypical perception is something that seems to develop later on, as a response to certain times of input.” The quotation should have said, “certain types of input.”  

Washington Square News regrets these errors.

Email Carol Oliveira at [email protected].