Writen by Alan Barker; coach, training consultant and academic proofreader. Find out more about his work here.

A father and son are involved in a car crash, and the father is killed. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate – that boy is my son!”


(You’ll find the answer – and an interesting article about the story – here.)

We all have unconscious biases. (Check out Daniel Kahneman’s work on this subject.) But how does a bias become a prejudice?

In her lecture, Harriet Over, Anniversary Research Lecturer at the University of York, defined prejudice as “having a relatively negative attitude to one group.” The topic of prejudice interests thinkers of many shades: economists, historians, political scientists and sociologists. Harriet is a psychologist; she’s looking for a possible psychological core, which may be laid down early in childhood.

Harriet showed a couple of videos demonstrating that toddlers can behave altruistically (you can see examples here.) We also know that very young children intuitively prefer their own language to another: Harriet referenced studies demonstrating that young infants would rather look at, and accept a toy from, a person who speaks their native language.

That suggests that a basic preference for the familiar, might contribute to later prejudice. But Harriet also suggested that membership of a group may also be a key factor.

Loyalty to a group may influence attitudes – and, critically, behaviours – to non-group members, or members of other groups. In one study, Harriet and her colleagues tested whether children could be bribed to reveal a secret about their own group, or a secret about another group. 70% of the children refused to be bribed to cheat on their own group, but only 47% resisted the temptation to snitch on the other group.

Along with the loyalty that grows out of group membership, early socialisation may play a role. At two or three, children can label themselves as a boy or a girl, and a couple of years after that they express stereotypes about what it means to be a boy or a girl. By the age of six or seven, little girls are expressing less ambition about certain careers than boys. Harriet shared scenes from, ‘Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer’, which caused a rumpus by showing Barbie entirely dependent on men to do the job. (Google images will display various parts of this book, now withdrawn from sale.)



Her point was a serious one: recent surveys suggest that children’s books still overwhelmingly portray white characters, and – as what she described as the only direct hot tip she was able to offer parents – she recommended the website, ‘We Need Diverse Books’, as a source of alternative children’s literature.

The problem extends from what’s available culturally, to what children will choose. Harriet  and her team ran a study in which they categorised children completely at random into two groups. When researchers offered the children a choice between different stories – one favouring their group and one favouring the other – the children strongly preferred information about their own group. In real life, slight preferences in cultural choice might lead children actively – or unconsciously – to seek information that favours their own group. And doing so seems to lead them to then develop negative attitudes to out-groups.

Children also seem to display more empathy with members of their in-group than with those of an out-group. A study using Frith-Happé animations suggests, she says, that children think more about the thoughts and feelings of fellow group members than they do about members of another group. And that lack of empathy might lead children to regard members of out-groups as – to put it crudely – less complete human beings.

A lot of people are already trying to intervene with children to stop them developing unacceptable prejudices. Unfortunately, says Harriet, little of that advice is based on solid empirical research. “Offering tips before you understand the mechanism could be quite dangerous,” she told us. “Some strategies could be wasting money by being useless, and some could actually be deleterious.”

Harriet wants interventions to be based on a replicable evidence base. “If we can understand the process by which prejudice and discrimination are acquired,” she suggests, “then can we use that knowledge to reduce it before it becomes deeply entrenched later.” It’s a long road; Harriet’s work sets an impressive standard to follow.

Read an interview with Harriet Over here.