Multiculturalism Needs to Begin Early

It could perhaps be argued that racism is partly a consequence of our cognitive limitations as human beings: we ascribe characteristics to whole groups of people because we lack the capacity to perceive the manifold differences between individuals. But as Michelle Delaney has found, the appreciation of difference is a skill that can be cultivated very early on in our lives.

My colleagues and I recently conducted research to test whether or not we could prevent “Other Race Effect” from developing in infancy. The Other Race Effect is a difficulty in recognizing and being able to tell the difference between faces from other-race groups compared to how good we are at recognizing and telling the difference between faces of our own race.

For example, to many Caucasians adults, all Chinese people look quite similar, while to Chinese people, Caucasian people tend to look similar. This is a well-established phenomenon in adults. It seems that because we have so much experience with faces from our own race we become experts, but this is at the cost of not being able to identify faces from other races as accurately.

At six months of age, infants can recognize and tell the difference between faces of all races; however by nine months of age this ability to process other-race faces is typically lost, due to minimal experience with other-race faces, and vast exposure to own-race faces, for which infants come to manifest expertise. Our research investigated whether infants could maintain the ability they have to process other-race faces from six months onwards, if they were given training via books in their own home between six and nine months of age.

To investigate this question, we gave parents and infants a book which contained either six Chinese faces or six Caucasian faces, and infants saw this book approximately four times a week, from when the infant was six to nine months of age. In total, 32 Caucasian infants did this book training. When the infant was 9 months of age they were tested at the University of Queensland to assess what they had learnt from their book.

Assessing knowledge in pre-verbal infants can be challenging, but there are specific techniques designed for this purpose. These techniques focus on how attentive infants are towards familiar and novel stimuli. Infants were shown pairs of faces on a large TV screen. In each pair one face was familiar (i.e. from the infant’s book) and the other was new, and we measured how long infants looked at each image.

We found that infants who received training on Chinese faces looked reliably longer at the familiar faces (from their books) when presented on the TV screen. This indicates that babies had learnt and remembered the individual faces from their books.

We also wanted to know if Caucasian infants can tell the difference between two Chinese faces, and compare this with their ability to differentiate Caucasian faces, which we know is very good. To test this each infant was shown one Chinese face until they had spent 20 seconds looking at it. Next, they were shown a pair of faces – one was the face they had just seen and the other was new. If infants recognise the face they had previously been shown, they should look longer at the new face, since this is new and more exciting than the face they had just seen.

We found just this: nine-month-old infants who had been exposed to Chinese faces could tell the difference between other-race (Chinese) faces, however the nine-month-olds who had been exposed to the book with Caucasian faces could not. This indicates that the infant’s environment has a large impact on what they are learning about and the skills they develop.

The finding that we can teach infants about other race faces from books is unique and exciting. It demonstrates that training on other-race faces via book exposure at this early stage of an infant’s life can prevent the Other Race Effect from developing in the first place. This study is the first to demonstrate this.

The outcome of this study could potentially have important implications in terms of the attitudes children develop about other races that they are not familiar with. Unfavourable attitudes towards people of other races in part stems from a lack of familiarity and knowledge about other races. Therefore it is plausible that children who have seen other-race faces in the context of a positive picture-book interaction with their parents might be less likely to develop negative attitudes towards other races. However, this is just speculation at this point, and another long-term study would need to be run before any firm conclusions can be reached.

This study also demonstrates that even young infants can learn and remember content from a picture book interaction. We already know that reading to children is beneficial for teaching language and social skills. This study confirms that young infants actually learn and remember the content of picture books if they are shown a book regularly.

Overall, this research shows that books can be useful tools for teaching young infants information about the world and infants can learn about faces from other races via picture book interactions with their parents.

Dr Michelle Delaney is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Medicine at the University of Queensland.