Understanding racism and prejudice starts with an understanding of implicit bias. Children, like all people, form biases quite naturally and automatically. In fact, this tendency is hardwired into our brain.

Stereotyping is an unfortunate consequence of the way our brains interpret the world. Your mind is basically a sophisticated association machine. It compares similarities and differences between different things while linking certain types of stimulus to certain types of emotions. This way of thinking evolved to help us quickly sort out friend from foe. As Chris Mooney states, “In evolutionary terms, it’s efficient to quickly classify a grizzly bear as dangerous. The trouble comes when the brain uses similar processes to form negative views about groups of people.” (Mooney, 2015, pp. 112-113)

How children learn bias

Children, like all people, tend to generalize and group people according to things like sex, height, skin color, weight, accent, clothing, and whatever other differences they happen to notice. This typically happens automatically, below the levels of conscious awareness.

One series of experiments show just how easily tendencies toward bias can emerge. Rebecca Bigler ran an experiment in 3 preschool classrooms, where 4- to 5-year-olds were randomly assigned either blue or red T-shirts for a period of 3 weeks. The teachers never mentioned these colors nor grouped kids according to them. Their play wasn’t segregated, and the kids interacted freely. Yet at the end of this experiment, when asked which color was smarter, or which might win a race, or who was nice, kids sided with their own color. The discrimination was subtle: liThe Reds never showed hatred for Blues,” Bigler observed. “lt was more like, ‘Blues are fine, but not as good as us.’” (Bronson & Merryman, 2009)

Jane Elliot’s famous experiments in Iowa classrooms also showed that children can quickly develop discriminatory behavior and prejudicial beliefs based on eye color. (PBS, 1986) It seems that children will use whatever is available to them to create divisions. This happens automatically, without any coaching or conscious intent (at least in the case of the T-shirt study). Since race, sex, and ethnicity differences are easily visible, children can revert to this subtle prejudice quite naturally. Add even the slightest bit of coaching in the form of ideas from parents or the culture at large, and things can quickly get out of hand.

Forms of bias that children are prone to

Bias tends to emerge because of several assumptions that the brain forms quite naturally:

The like-me bias

Children tend to assume that those who look similar to themselves will enjoy the same sort of things, whereas those who look different will not. This tendency to assume that your particular group shares the same “good” characteristics or values as you do is called essentialism, and it’s a driving factor behind all types of prejudice. The ego also gets involved here: we all have a need to think of ourselves as not just good, but better than those around us. (Studies typically show that everyone assumes they’re an above-average driver, have above-average looks or talents and are above average when it comes to other important aspects of life. This belief defies science, of course; it’s quite impossible for everyone – or even the majority of people – to be above average.)

Therefore each child is born with a powerful need to see traits that they themselves possess as being better than others. If I was born blonde, then blonde is better. If I was born female, then girls rule and boys drool. If pink is your favorite color, then pink is best, much better than the rest.

The either/or bias
Our brains don’t do well with duality. Therefore if we imbue something with one trait, we have trouble imagining something else being the same way. How can whites and blacks both be best? Or more complexly, how can your characteristics be in any way good if they aren’t shared by me? We tend to think in either/or terms: You’re either for or against me, with little room for nuance.

The all-or-nothing bias
The human brain also struggles with ambiguity. Since our mind wants to sort and associate by nature, we tend to see people as all of one thing or all of another. Someone’s either good or bad, but rarely both. You’re either a criminal or a bad person, in which case you always break the law and do bad things, or you’re a good, law-abiding citizen, in which case everything you do is right.

The all-or-nothing bias runs directly against reality, of course. In the real world, people are never all good or all bad, and they are ALWAYS a combination of both. Yet the brain doesn’t think this way naturally. It wants to throw people into one category or another and adhere to the simplest (i.e., dumbest) map possible, which paves the way for prejudicial thinking.

The us against them bias
Finally, human beings are competitive by nature. This means that once the lines of division are drawn, we’re also compelled to compete by them. Once children were given either red shirts or blue shirts, human nature drew them into a type of low-key competition with one another, each group trying to prove that their own group was the best.

Bias as part of a child’s nature

These biases work in concert to create prejudice and discrimination of all types, which is why there’s no shortage of such things in the world today. In fact, if you look throughout history, it seems as though whenever one form of prejudice goes out of style, another bias crops up to fill the void. Human nature naturally bends us towards biased ways of thinking; it requires conscious intent to disrupt these patterns.