The Development of Implicit Attitudes in Children

By Jordan Axt

Most of the studies reviewed on this blog focus on adult participants. However, a number of studies have investigated the implicit racial attitudes of children, and how they may differ from those of adults.

For example, one 2006 study examined the implicit racial attitudes of three different groups of White participants: kindergarteners (about 6 years old), fifth graders (about 10 years old) and college students (about 19 years old). Researchers used the IAT to measure implicit racial attitudes for White versus Black people, but altered the measure for younger participants. A typical IAT asks participants to read and sort positive and negative words as quickly as possible. the researchers made a clever change to the procedure for pre-readers: the child participants heard a voice say either a positive or negative word and then had to categorize what they heard as fast as possible using separate keys on a keyboard.

There were no differences in IAT performance among the three groups; the White kindergarteners, fifth graders, and college students all showed more positive implicit attitudes for White than Black people, and did so to a similar extent. However, the same was not true for explicit attitudes. While the kindergarteners and fifth graders had more positive self-reported attitudes for White over Black people, the college students did not show any difference in self-reported attitudes towards White versus Black people.

Other studies have found a similar pattern: White participants showed more positive racial attitudes towards their own group on the IAT, and did so to a similar extent among adults and children. However, there were noticeable differences in explicit attitudes. Young children typically report much more positive attitudes towards their own race (White people), while adults either report a slightly more positive attitudes towards people from their own race, or report equally positive attitudes towards people from their own compared to other races.

These results can help us understand how implicit and explicit racial attitudes develop. For one, these studies show that some of the influences we think create more positive implicit attitudes towards White people (for example, exposure to certain cultural stereotypes) may occur very quickly in life.

In addition, the finding that explicit, but not implicit, racial attitudes change over time can shed light on how the two types of attitudes operate. For instance, it’s possible that the changes found in explicit attitudes are genuine. People may genuinely come to feel less of a preference for their own race as they grow up. Alternatively, the change in explicit attitudes could be due to learning that it’s not socially acceptable to report more positive attitudes towards one group than another. In that case, the results would suggest that social pressure can change explicit, but not implicit, attitudes.

Upcoming studies will likely look to disentangle these two possibilities: do the changes in explicit racial attitudes across the lifespan indicate an actual change in attitudes or just a better understanding of social expectations? This work will help us understand how implicit and explicit attitudes form, change over time, and how they may relate to certain beliefs or behaviors.