Artist: Yazmon Ector (NCID Art & Design Intern)


Issues regarding intergroup bias exist all over the world. There are even studies showing that babies will look more at members of their own group than members of another group.

When kids show intergroup bias at really young ages, adults may infer that it's just a natural thing to prefer one’s own “group.” It just is what it is.

But not so fast. According to Allison Skinner, “There's quite a bit of evidence showing that it really matters what information you're actually exposed to,” and that nonverbal cues play an important part in shaping the biases of young children.

Dr. Skinner is a postdoctoral research associate in the psychology department at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on how biases are spread by nonverbal behavior through groups of people and especially to children.

In June 2018, my curiosity was piqued by her article titled “The slippery slope of dehumanizing language.” I caught up with Dr. Skinner to learn more about her research.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


You do research on how young children learn biases through nonverbal behavior. What prompted you to research this topic?

It’s hard for me to pinpoint. It's something I got interested in back in graduate school after learning about the social psychological literature on implicit biases — attitudes and beliefs people generally don't express out loud to other people — and nonverbal behavior. Evidence shows that people who have higher implicit biases will show less nonverbal warmth and friendliness in interracial interactions.

Knowing there are these biases in nonverbal behavior — combined with the fact that in the US context we don't really talk about race — may help explain why we see toddlers showing racial biases.

Most often when white American parents hear their children express racial biases they are shocked. They say, "I’ve never said anything like this to them. Where did they get this?" Well, because they're exposed to a ton of nonverbal and implicit information. It is not just the things you explicitly say to them that influence their attitudes.

I was considering all these ideas together and thinking that nonverbal signals may be a really critical way in which we learn about other people in our social environment and develop attitudes not just about individuals, but also about entire groups of people.


Tell me about your current research focus and projects.

Initially, I just wanted to see if there was any evidence for how biases are spread through groups of people. Past work had shown that when white people were exposed to videos in which the nonverbal signals directed towards racial minority group members were negative, that they would show heightened levels of racial bias. Since this is capitalizing on an existing societal biases, I wanted to know if this could be a mechanism for creating bias, not just exacerbating or heightening something that already is pre-existing in society.

My initial studies looked at whether exposure to more positive nonverbal signals towards one person relative to another could produce a bias. In these experiments, there were two important features. First, the interactions did not contain any verbal or explicit information to indicate that one person is better, or a reason to favor one person over another. The person demonstrating biased nonverbal signals says the exact same things to both people, but the way that they say it differs (e.g., tone of voice), as well as a ton of other nonverbal cues. Second, the characteristics (e.g., race, gender) of the individuals who were the targets of the nonverbal signals were the same.

Next, I wanted to look at whether these biases would generalize beyond the individual target of nonverbal signals to their larger demographic group. I'm interested in looking at these larger group level biases. So I wanted to know, could this process create systemic biases against certain demographic groups?

I investigated this in a few different ways, but I think the most compelling that I've now done with kids as well as adults was looking at fictitious places and made up nationalities. I didn't tell people they were made up to see if I could create these attitudes towards these different national groups. I wanted to know whether people would favor one national group relative to another based on the nonverbal information they saw directed toward a single representative of those fictitious nationalities.


What did you learn from your research?

My initial studies established evidence for the ability of nonverbal signals to create biases against just single individuals. I learned that four- and five-year-olds definitely are picking up on this nonverbal information and using it to formulate social attitudes toward others.

In addition, my work showed that kids will generalize these biases to larger social (e.g., national) groups. Just seeing more positive nonverbal cues directed toward a member of one group relative to another, they will ultimately develop biases favoring that person's entire group.

It is important to note that these nonverbal signals were coming from a stranger that they had never met before, whom they were just watching on video. The fact that young children’s primary sources of these nonverbal signals in everyday life are probably parents and caretakers — people who they highly trust — suggests that nonverbal signals may be far more powerful than what we observed in my experiments.

In addition, when it comes to societal biases, we are often exposed to the same nonverbal message over and over. We get the message from many different people and directed toward many different members of a social group. Depending on what context we're in, it could be multiple times a day by many different people that you're getting information about the social groups around us and others nonverbal biases toward or against them.

In this brief amount of time when kids are participating in my experiment, they showed remarkably fast adoption of biases. The bias is fairly small, but the fact that it generalizes all the way out to anyone of the same nationality really fascinated me. Kids didn't need to see nonverbal biases demonstrated towards lots of people. It was just one person, and they generalized to the whole nationality.


What are the key takeaways of your work?

First, I would like readers to be aware that there are really subtle ways in which we're providing information to others — and especially to children — about our attitudes and beliefs about who's important, who's trustworthy, who's valuable, who's nice, and all of those kinds of things. When we don't acknowledge them and address them, we perpetuate this bias, even if it's not something we intend to do.

The first step to overcoming this is to become more conscious of your nonverbal behavior. We need to start asking ourselves why we're behaving in the ways that we are. One thing most people probably don't think much about, but is really critical, is that it's not just about behaving negatively or feeling negatively toward people. If you are warmer and friendlier towards some people than others, that can have the same effect. You don't have to have really negative attitudes.

Second, there is a lack of explicit conversation and avoidance of talking about race. This is really important, and it could be the key to intervention. If we, as adults, can get over our discomfort about having these conversations and be given the words for how and what to talk about, that it could have a really big impact. For instance, there is research showing that talking to white children about the historical discrimination and prejudice faced by black people in the US reduces their racial biases.

When kids see that certain people tend to be poor, that certain people tend to be on the news with their mugshots, when they see that information, and they're not given a reason for why that might be the case, they come up with a reason. The reason is “that's the way it should be because some people are better than others. It isn’t because there is systemic racism.”

It’s important to come up with ways that we can have conversations about race. Ways to encourage teachers and parents to have conversations with their students. There certainly is evidence to support that this is helpful and effective.


Are you interested in Dr. Skinner’s work? Visit her profile here.