At what point in our young lives do we start thinking of people who are different from us as enemies?
Provocative new research from Germany suggests this problematic psychological process—which underpins racism, extreme nationalism, and prejudice of all sorts—kicks in somewhere around age seven.
Love for one’s own group and hatred for perceived outsiders are separate attitudes that emerge at different stages of a child’s development, according to University of Erfurt researchers David Buttelmann and Robert Böhm.
In the journal Psychological Science, they present evidence that six-year-olds show clear bias in favor of a group they belong to. However, hatred for opposing groups doesn’t show up until two years later.
They further found that eight-year-old boys feel, or at least act upon, this disdain far more strongly than eight-year-old girls.
Buttelmann and Böhm offer evidence from a cleverly designed experiment, which featured a computer game of their own devising.
Children—45 six-year-olds and 36 eight-year-olds—gathered in a laboratory in groups of three to 10. Each drew a lottery ticket that determined whether they would belong to the “green” or “yellow” group. Members of each group were assigned to opposite corners of the lab, and wore T-shirts of their group’s color.
After a short introduction, each youngster sat down at a computer terminal and played a game in which they were presented with 15 “positive resources” (including a cookie and a teddy bear) and 15 “negative resources” (including a spider and a piece of broken glass). They were given the option of allocating each item to a puppet dressed as a member of their group, or to one dressed as a member of the other group.
Importantly, they also had a third option: Depositing the item into an open box. In this way, they could pass up unwanted items without engaging in the hostile act of giving them to a representative of the opposing group.
Among the “positive resources,” the six-year-olds allocated 75 percent to their own group’s representative, 10 percent to the outsider puppet, and 15 percent to the box. The eight-year-olds showed an even greater bias toward their own group, giving 90 percent of these valuable items to their own puppet, four percent to the other, and six percent to the box.
Among the unwanted items, the six-year-olds allocated 51 percent to the other group’s puppet, 12 percent to their own group’s puppet, and 37 percent to the box. These percentages shifted significantly for the eight-year-olds: They allocated 71 percent to the other group’s puppet, four percent to their own group’s puppet, and 25 percent to the box.
Further analysis revealed that “out-group hate was the dominant motivation for the eight-year-olds’ distributions of negative resources,” the researchers write.
While there were no significant gender differences among the six-year-olds, the eight-year-old boys showed far more disdain for the other group than the eight-year-old girls. They assigned 84 percent of the unwanted items to the outsider puppet; the girls allocated only 60 percent, and put far more of the items into the neutral box.
“Overall, the results indicated that in-group love is already present in children of preschool age, and can motivate in-group-biased behavior,” the researchers conclude, “whereas out-group hate develops only after a child’s sixth birthday.”
In the musical “South Pacific,” Oscar Hammerstein famously traced the origins of prejudice, declaring: “You’ve got to be carefully taught, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.”
He clearly got the time frame right. Unfortunately, the form of instruction he describes seems to occur spontaneously, and the child absorbs it easily.
That said, these results may not be as depressing as they seem. Buttelmann and Böhm note that, if in-group love develops before out-group hate, parents and educators can teach tolerance by “building on humans’ inherent prosocial nature.”
“Children, and in particular boys, should be taught as early as preschool age that intragroup cooperation and loyalty are valuable and beneficial for humanity,” they write, “only if they do not imply out-group derogation at the same time.”
In other words, there’s a school-age window of a year or two before disdain for outsiders kicks in—a time when kids are presumably receptive to a message of co-existence and cooperation. For all our sakes, we had better take advantage of it.