August 29, 2012 5 Comments
Occasionally the wiring in your brain comes into direct conflict with those pesky social norms imposed by civilized society. For example, although certain people don’t explicitly express preferences for specific groups, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) reveals that they often have implicit or unconscious attitudes that favor a particular ethnicity, gender, or religion. The reasoning goes that people understand these preferences are bad, and so the preferences are only able to bubble to the surface when people don’t have time to think.
If adults have a disconnect between implicit and explicit attitudes, what about children? A new study led by Harvard’s Larisa Heiphetz attempts to answer the question within the domain of religion. In the initial experiment Heephetz and her team replicated previous experiments that showed Christian adults expressed implicit, but not explicit attitudes that favored other Christians. In experiments 2 and 3, the researchers found that unlike adults, children ages 6-8 whose parents identified them as Christian expressed both implicit and explicit preferences for Christians. The results suggest that there is a period when children have learned to favor their own religion, but haven’t yet learned not to show it.
In two final experiments the researchers made small tweak. Instead of presenting children with groups that had a clear religious difference — Christians and Hindus — they present the children with groups that had a “weak” religious difference — Christians and Jews. This time children were more like adults — they expressed implicit, but not explicit attitudes in favor of Christianity. Heiphetz reasons that this is not due to social pressures, it’s because when two characters are similar children don’t have sufficient awareness of their attitudes to articulate them.
I think you can look at the study’s findings in two ways. On one hand, good for society! By the time people become adults we’ve managed to shame them into abandoning their arbitrary and potentially discriminatory explicit preferences. On the other hand, society is terrible! By the time children are seven-years-old we’ve already filled their heads with our own ideas and prevented them from truly forming their own opinions.
Heiphetz, L., Spelke,E.S., & Banaji, M.R. (2012). Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes in Children and Adults: Tests in the Domain of Religion Journal of Experimental Psychology: General DOI: 10.1037/a0029714