Fall 2020 Newsletter

Children use race and gender to form beliefs about social status, research finds

kids with arms around each other

The age when children begin to think about stereotypes and possibly shape them into individual beliefs is a crucial moment in their social development.

New research at UMass Amherst is trying to uncover at what point stereotypical beliefs may emerge, and how they can evolve into prejudicial attitudes.

As children learn about the world around them, they are paying attention to constructs of society like wealth, power, and access to resources. In a recent study, researchers have gained more insight into whether children consider race and gender when deciding how to rank the social status of an individual or group.

Tara Mandalaywala
Tara Mandalaywala

Tara Mandalaywala, developmental psychologist at UMass Amherst, is investigating how a children’s ideas about social status may be one of the foundations that lead them to form prejudice. She theorizes that there must be some beliefs in place about who is higher or lower in status in order for prejudice to emerge.

“Prejudice is not equally distributed to everyone. Groups that are considered by adults in society to be of lower social status have less power, less resources, less social connections. Those are the groups who tend to experience much more prejudice and discrimination than those groups that are considered to be higher in status,” notes Mandalaywala.

Her research team’s findings, published in PLOS ONE, show that from ages 3 ½ - 6, children are using gender and race as cues to status and they are aware of various levels where people can be placed. This also affected their attitudes about other groups of kids they are in contact with.

Boys were found to have a higher status in relation to access to resources (e.g., having more toys) and decision-making power (e.g., choosing what toys other kids may play with). They were not expected however to hold more wealth. Despite varying levels of gender-related status beliefs, girls preferred other girls when choosing who they would prefer to socialize with.

Children expected White people to have greater wealth than Black people, and in some sample populations, if White people were believed to hold a higher status there was a weak relation to pro-White bias (e.g., choosing a White child to play with over another race).

The children’s beliefs about their own status were shown to be unrelated to their beliefs about other groups. The children readily placed themselves at high status.

Mandalaywala describes, “Even though kids seem to be fully aware of these stereotypes—these ideas about how certain groups would be hierarchically organized—they didn’t seem to apply that to themselves.

“We did find for girls that there was a slight idea that with age they became more likely to put themselves lower [on the status ladder]. Girls ranked girls as lower in power than boys, which is something we don’t normally see because at these ages kids have super strong own-gender biases.”

These findings suggest that stereotypes begin to take shape in the minds of kids at a very young age. Despite this fact, children in this age range may not feel they are part of a stereotype aimed at their race or gender. Mandalaywala’s research team wants to understand how children feel if they begin to see themselves as lower status, and what the cognitive processes are that put this belief in motion.

rope ladder in classroomThe first task a child was asked to complete as part of the study was the “rope task” adapted from subjective status ladders used in adult studies. A column of six pegs connected by a small rope wrapped around each peg was used as the apparatus. After initial training on the setup, the child was asked to place two stick figure cards, representing people of a certain race or gender, on higher or lower pegs.

They were told people at the top of the rope have lots of new clothes, toys, and they always get to decide what games everyone plays at recess and what snacks everyone will eat at snack time. Some people don’t have this, and they go at the bottom. The child had to guess where various people would be placed and also where they would put themselves.

The second task was the “wealth-matching task,” where the child was shown a picture of a nice-looking house and less nice-looking house, given two human figures similar to the first task, and asked “Which kid lives in which house?” The third task, using side-to-side pictures of children, explored the subject’s social preferences in several hypothetical situations, like being asked, “Who do you want to invite to your birthday party?”  

Mandalaywala reflects, “In this paper, these beliefs about social status didn’t seem to be that predictive of prejudice. Thinking that the white kid was wealthier than the black kid was only moderately associated with liking the white kid better. Maybe social status is a little piece of the puzzle, but there could be lots of other beliefs that they also have to have in order to actually lead to the development of prejudice towards minority groups.”

Next steps for Mandalaywala’s lab include looking further into how beliefs about social status start. The team wants to learn more about what kinds of things kids are spontaneously paying attention to, what cues they are listening to, and what effect their environment has on the beliefs they form.

The results of this work could bring to light better ways to talk to children about inequality. Potentially, scientists could find an ideal time to begin teaching kids about the history and consequences of stereotypes, a period where they would be less likely to internalize hurtful mental pictures and possibly view themselves in a discouraging way.

According to Mandalaywala, “It’s important to know that from really early in development, kids are aware of this way that society organizes groups of people. They have a really sophisticated understanding of that…I think parents shouldn’t be afraid to head-on address it and talk about it. They’re not going to teach their kid [about social status], they’re already aware.”