9-month-old babies demonstrate racial bias in face recognition

By David Ferguson
Friday, May 4, 2012 13:16 EDT
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Beautiful baby girl via Shutterstock
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Racial biases in face recognition seem to appear in infants as young as 9 months old, according to a blog post from “Live Science.” A study conducted by psychologists at Massachusetts, Amherst has shown that while babies younger than 9 months are equally able to recognize faces and their expressions across the spectrum of race and skin tone, babies show an increased aptitude at 9 months to recognize and interpret differences in the faces of the type of people it interacts with most, which are usually members of the child’s own race.

Lisa Scott, a researcher in the study, said, “These results suggest that biases in face recognition and perception begin in preverbal infants, well before concepts about race are formed. It is important for us to understand the nature of these biases in order to reduce or eliminate them.”

It has been demonstrated that adults have more difficulty recognizing and reading the faces of people outside their own race. This study indicates that this bias is something humans manifest some time after birth, but before the acquisition of language.

In one part of the study, 48 Caucasian babies were tasked with differentiating between faces of their own races and faces from another, unknown race. In another phase of the experiment, sensors were placed on the babies’ heads as they were exposed to photographs of Caucasian or African-American faces showing expressions that either matched or did match recorded sounds like crying and laughter.

The study found that 5-month-olds were equally good at differentiating faces from races other than their own, but by 9 months of age, babies showed an increased affinity and aptitude for faces of their own race. Similarly, the brain-monitoring study found that 5-month-olds and 9-month-olds processed emotional input differently with 9-month-olds demonstrating more ability to properly discern the emotions displayed on faces that are more like those of their own race.

The study showed a shift between 5 and 9 months of age in where the brain processed the information. The younger infants processed emotional information in the back part of the brain, whereas by 9 months this processing had moved to the frontal regions, giving scientists intriguing new clues about how the brain develops and grows.

The study apparently did not include any non-Caucasian babies. Also, by the study’s findings, presumably a nonwhite baby raised by white parents (or vice versa) would respond more to faces of its parents’ race than those of its own at 9 months, but such variables were apparently not addressed within the confines of this study.

Scott and her colleagues have published their findings in the May issue of the journal Developmental Science.

(image via Shutterstock)

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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