Babies Perceive Racial Difference in First Year

Societal racial issues start much earlier than we think.

Posted: 05/29/2012 11:22 AM EDT

Infants are able to distinguish between people of different races but, by 9 months they are better at recognizing the faces and emotional expressions of people they interact with the most, according to a University of Massachusetts Amherst study released this month.


Psychology researcher Lisa Scott and her colleagues found that before babies turn a year old they show a decline in the ability to tell apart two faces within another race and to accurately match emotional sounds with emotional expressions of individuals of different races.

"These results suggest that biases in face recognition and perception begin in preverbal infants, well before concepts about race are formed,” said Scott in a press statement. “It is important for us to understand the nature of these biases in order to reduce or eliminate them."  

Forty-eight white infants ages 5 months and 9 months, with little to no previous experience with African-Americans or Black individuals, completed two tasks during the study. The first task was designed to assess the babies’ ability to distinguish between two faces within their own race and two faces within another, unfamiliar race; the second required them to view own-race and other-race emotion faces (happy, sad) that either matched or did not match a corresponding emotion sound (laughing, crying).

The first was designed to assess their ability to tell the difference between two faces within their own race and two faces within another, unfamiliar, race. For the second task, a net of recording sensors was placed on the infant’s head to record brain activity while they viewed own-race and other-race emotion faces (happy, sad) that either matched or did not match a corresponding emotion sound (laughing, crying).

As a result, the 5-month-old infants were able to tell faces apart from both races, whereas the 9-month-old infants were better at distinguishing between two faces within their own race.

“It would be really hard to conclude that perception of different racial emotions is somehow set in stone by nine months,” said Dr. John Colombo, professor of Child Psychology at the University of Kansas.


Yet the findings of the study suggest that infants’ increased exposure to people of different races will help counteract the process of perceptual narrowing between that four-month gap.

"In addition to providing information critical for understanding how infants learn about the surrounding environment, the results of this research may serve as a guide for early education and interventions designed to reduce later racial prejudice and stereotyping," said the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Scott.


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(Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/GettyImages)

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