Children Can Keep Away From Status-related Bias If The Structure Is Explained Specifically

Explanations shape a child’s world. Children’s perception of status-related bias and response to inequality is influenced by the way causes are explained to them.

According to a new study by a group of psychologists, perception of inequality may be influenced by how reasons are communicated to them. The study shares insight into the factors that affect how larger social issues are perceived at a young age and shows a new approach to reduce bias toward lower-status economic groups.

“When making sense of social inequalities, adults may consider the structural forces at play — for example, people may cite policies related to legacy admissions when thinking about how disparities first arise,” says Rachel Leshin, a New York University doctoral student and the lead author of the study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “But children don’t necessarily see differences in status in this way — and when children are prompted to consider the structural forces, they tend to interpret these structures differently from how adults do.”

“However, our work shows that children can think about these matters in a similar manner as adults do if the structures driving inequality are explained to them in specific ways,” she adds. “Such approaches, we found, also reduced the extent of bias children felt against a lower-income group relative to a higher-income group.” “

Explanations can be used to reduce bias against lower status groups

It has long been established that infants quickly acquire status-related prejudices because of early awareness of inequality. They frequently have a more favourable opinion of members of high-status groups, such as those who have more material resources or who belong to groups they connect with higher wealth, and they also voluntarily tolerate group differences.

Leshin and Marjorie Rhodes, a professor in the Department of Psychology at NYU, conducted the PNAS study to better understand how children reason about economic inequality and how the justifications given for inequality affect children’s reactions to it, such as how they feel about low-status groups or whether they want to address the inequality. The goal of the effort was to comprehend how these justifications might be applied to less powerful groups to lessen prejudice.

Testing children’s attitudes to diminish bias linked to social categories

More than 200 kids between the ages of 5 and 10 were enlisted by Leshin and Rhodes to take part in an online study for this purpose. Children were taught about two fictitious groups in the study: “Toogits,” a high-status group, and “Flurps,” a low-status group. The authors observe that to reduce prejudice related to “real-world” social categories, children’s opinions are frequently tested using hypothetical groupings. These groups were characterized as having varying levels of wealth and resources, including:

Look at this Flurp. This residence is home to this Flurp. And what else do you know? Adult Flurps work in jobs that only provide a meager wage. Flurps didn’t have a lot of money, so instead of receiving a birthday gift other than a pair of socks, they were forced to forgo a birthday party altogether.

Images of the two groups’ homes were also given to the kids, with the Toogit residing in a nice, polished home and the Flurp in a less appealing one.

The researchers gave children one of three explanations for the inequality shown through the two fictional groups to examine how the causes given to explain the inequality influenced children’s responses to it. One explanation attributed the inequality to structural causes and identified the high-status group as the structures’ creators (i.e., “… because of rules that [the high-status group] made up a long time ago”); another explanation attributed the inequality to structural causes but did not identify their creators; and the third explanation.

Structural explanations influence bias

The goal of the study was to determine whether and how much these theories would affect how youngsters respond to inequality, particularly how biased they would be towards low-status economic groups.

The results showed that only the structural explanation that implicated the high-status group as the primary cause of the divergent conditions between the two groups had significant effects. Children in this situation showed less prejudice against these hypothetical groups than they did in the other two, thought the status hierarchy was unjust, and decided to give the low-status group more resources.

Groups influential in the implementation of the structure are also important

Children who heard a structural explanation, however, that did not attribute these differences to the high-status group but rather to a third party — i.e., “the person who got to make the rules” — did not react any differently than those who heard no explanation at all in the control condition.

“In engaging with children about inequality, whether it’s linked to wealth or educational attainment, it’s important to not only identify a structural cause underlying a disparity, such as legacy admissions but to also identify the group influential in the implementation of those structures,” explains Leshin. “We think these findings can be used to better understand how we can meaningfully engage with children about inequality.”

Story Source:

Materials provided by New York University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

Rachel A. Leshin, Marjorie Rhodes. Structural explanations for inequality reduce children’s biases and promote rectification only if they implicate the high-status group. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2023; 120 (35) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2310573120

Page citation:

New York University. “New research finds way to reduce bias in children.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 August 2023. <>.

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