New research by a University of Delaware
psychological scientist and his collaborators across the globe has
found a simple exercise that can undo the unconscious racial biases that
young children have — biases that may begin to develop as early as
The findings are part of an ongoing, multi-country collaboration that has been conducted by Paul Quinn, professor of psychological and brain sciences
at UD, for more than a decade. Funded by a National Institutes of
Health (NIH) grant, Quinn works with researchers in Canada, France and
China to explore how infants mentally classify faces by race and gender.
This research has recently received attention in The New York Times and The Guardian.
Using an established technique of measuring how much time the babies
spend looking at pictures of faces, Quinn has learned that 3-month-olds
begin showing a visual preference for the categories — generally, female
and the same race as themselves — that they see most often in their
By 9 months of age, infants not only distinguish racial categories
but also become less able to tell different individuals apart if they
are members of a less-familiar race. For example, Caucasian infants can
identify Caucasian faces as belonging to different individuals, but they
are less likely to see Asian or African faces as distinct individuals.
“Our original thinking about the 9-month-old findings was that this
process that we call ‘narrowing’ is based on visual perception, not any
social bias,” Quinn said. “But then the question we asked was: Might
these perceptual biases we see in infants be related to the social
biases that we see in older kids, beginning at 3 or 4 years of age, and
“And if they are, can we use a technique to reduce bias? As we tried
to answer this question, we hit on the idea that if the perceptual and
social biases are linked, we might be able to reduce the social bias by
In this new study, published in July in the journal Developmental Science,
Quinn and his collaborators in China used photos of African and Asian
faces and morphed them together to create ambiguous images that looked
equally African and Asian. Some of the faces had pleasant expressions,
while others looked more severe.
When researchers showed the images to 4- to 6-year-olds in China, the
children identified the happy faces as Asian — the category they were
used to seeing — and the angry faces as African, a group they rarely saw
in daily life.
The scientists’ next step was to see whether the children’s
unconscious racial biases could be disrupted. They showed the youngsters
five different African faces and gave each of the individuals a name,
repeating the process until the children could identify each of the five
faces by name.
When the children then looked at the happy and angry ambiguous-race
photos again, their bias in favor of their own racial group had dropped
“This process of getting the kids to respond to the [five African]
faces as individuals, not as a category, only takes 15-30 minutes, and
it made a significant difference,” Quinn said. “It suggests that what is
a social bias has [visual] perceptual components and that it can be
Many questions remain for further study, he said. Among them: After
children go through the face-identification exercise and reduce their
unconscious bias, how long does that effect last? Also, what aspect of
the training is the critical ingredient? Is it mere exposure, or is it
the act of individuation?
“This has caused us to rethink what’s going on” in the link between
perception and social bias, Quinn said. “There are a number of avenues
we want to explore.”