Babies Show Signs of Racial Bias at Nine Months

by Lempi Koivisto

Are Babies Racist?This week, we've been assaulted by sensational headlines such as, "Even Babies Are a Little Racist" and "Study Finds 9-Month-Old Babies Are Racist." Study author, Lisa Scott says that babies are not racist; it's the media that has trouble seeing shades of gray.

Although babies are born with equal abilities to tell apart people within multiple races, by age nine months they are better at recognizing faces and emotional expressions of people within groups they interact with most.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst study, "Infants Begin to Learn about Race in the First Year," found white nine-month-old babies were worse than white five-month-old babies at telling apart African-American adults.

Forty-eight Caucasian infants with little or no previous experience with African-American or black individuals participated in the study. The babies' first task assessed their ability to tell the difference between two faces in their own race and within another, unfamiliar race.

For the second task, a net of recording sensors was placed on the baby's head to record brain activity while they viewed own-race and other-race happy or sad faces that matched or didn't match the corresponding laughing or crying sounds.

Five-month-old babies had no problem telling African-American people apart, but 9-month-olds did. They were also less able to decipher emotions on black people's faces. What changed during these four months?

Baby Brains Develop Bias

At six months of age, babies notice when the sounds change most of the time, no matter what language the syllables are from. Over the next six months, the babies get even better at perceiving the changes in sounds from the language their parents speak and gradually lose the ability to recognize changes in sounds that don't exist in their native tongue.

The English "R" and "L" sounds help us distinguish between words such as "roam" and "loam." Babies from English-speaking homes detect the change from "ra" to "la" when they are six-months-old and get better at it by 12 months.

Japanese has no "R" and "L" distinction. Babies from Japanese-speaking homes do as well as their American peers with the "r-l" shift at six months, but they can't tell the difference at a year old.

During these months, your baby's brain focuses on significant sounds and tunes out the others. The process nurtures some neural connections and prunes others. Japanese one-year-olds don't choose to ignore the difference between "ra" and "la." They literally can't hear it.

Babies who grow up in multilingual households maintain the ability to distinguish these sounds in those languages. Similarly, babies who hang out with a diverse set of people maintain the ability to tell the differences between those people.

Telling People Apart

Most of us have heard the excuse, "I just can't tell those people apart." It might not be an excuse, but an example of normal brain development. There's no shortage of studies that suggesting adults are less able to recognize individuals from different races.

Five-month-old babies have no problem telling apart faces from different races, but by nine months, babies had developed racial bias, becoming more adept at telling apart two faces within their own race.

Measurements of brain activity showed that five-month-old babies used similar processing for both their own- and other-race faces. Babies used the same neural connection regardless of how familiar the facial features.

By nine months, brain activity showed different neural processing of own-race compared to other-race emotional faces. Specific pathways had been reinforced by practice decoding familiar faces and other, less used pathways were pruned.

The researchers pointed out that area of the brain processing facial emotions shifted from neural regions in the front to neural regions in the back of the brain during these months. This shift in neural processing helps researchers understand how the brain develops in response to experience during the first year of life.

What do you believe?

Medical references:
- Vogel, M, Monesson, A and Scott, L. (May 2012) "Building biases in infancy: the influence of race on face and voice emotion matching." Developmental Science, 15: 359–372.