University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers placed sensors on the heads of 9-month-old babies…and measured brain activity when infants were shown pictures of white and black faces expressing emotion. Five-month-old babies could differentiate between happy or sad faces in both races equally. Nine-month-old babies related better to their own race. Also, the 5-month-olds’ brain activity happened in the front of the brain; the older, more racist babies experienced activity in the back.
The paper is in the May issue of the journal Development Science. It’s called “Building biases in infancy: the influence of race on face and voice emotion matching” by Margaret Vogel, Alexandra Monesson and Lisa Scott.
The main finding is that babies’ “face recognition skills become tuned to groups of people they interact with the most.” Who would have guessed? The authors also say this: “This developmental tuning is hypothesized to be the origin of adult face processing biases including the other-race bias. In adults the other-race bias has also been associated with impairments in facial emotion processing for other-race faces.” Again, this is partly uncontroversial. Human beings are better at finding subtleties in the familiar.
Anyway, our trio gathered babies together whose “parents reported their infants having had little to no previous experience with African American or other Black individuals.” They did not do the opposite and find babies who never saw white faces. They had 24—count ‘em—5-month-olds and 24 9-month-olds. This makes 24 + 24 = 48, a simple math equation, but important to assimilate because of the authors’ admission that for the behavioral analysis
43 infants were excluded due to experimenter or technical error (n = 8), because they became fussy during testing (n = 1), because they exhibited a side looking bias (n = 14), because they failed to fixate both images during one of the test trials (n = 18), or because the infant was not Caucasian (n = 2).
I leave it as homework to discover what is 48 minus 43. For the electrophysiological analyses, they had 15 5-month-olds and 17 9-month-olds, but 19 these were added to the result from the homework question (how many were 5-months old or 9-months old we are never told); however, 23 of these 15 + 17 = 32 were excluded too. What we have here, in statistical terms, is small sample (get it? get it?).
For the behavioral analysis, babies were sat in front of a computer monitor on which was flashed images of smiling black or white women in pairs, some familiar some not. The amount of time babies looked at one or the other faces was measured. For the electrophysiological analyses, babies were subjected to mixtures of “happy or sad” black and white faces and voices.
If the babies didn’t buy any of this manipulation, “the experimenter viewing the infant via live video feed paused the experiment and presented digital images ⁄ sounds of ‘Elmo’ until they fixated the screen.” No word on how often that happened.
Oh, did I mention electrodes were glued to the kids? Indeed, “Trials were discarded from analyses if they contained more than 12 bad channels” from these electrodes. No word on how many were excluded. But they made the babies go through hundreds of trials; and “average of 95.93″ for one part of the study, etc.
Now, it appears that they did their t-tests based on the samples they would have had had they not tossed out the data. There are words about this being fairer. Or something. It is just not clear. But as larger samples make smaller p-values no matter what, they are biasing things in their favor.
Five-month-olds were not racist: the p-value just wasn’t small enough. But it’s the 9-month-olds where the trouble starts. Older babies spent on average “59.2%” of time looking at white novel faces but just “52.3%” of the time looking at the black novel faces (in the paired-faces experiments). Nine-month-olds also sparkled slightly more via the electrodes than did the 5-month-olds, but the difference is slight and only in on some but not all electrodes.
And it goes on. But it’s all—I hope the authors can forgive me for saying this—rather dull. The differences here are slight and, as said above, in some sense expected. The authors even manage not to include any speculation in their conclusions about “what it all means.” Overall, a fairly routine paper with a few (standard) mistakes. So why the fuss?
Well, it seems the authors just couldn’t help themselves and in the press release accompanying the publication said,
‘These results suggest that biases in face recognition and perception begin in preverbal infants, well before concepts about race are formed,’ said study leader Lisa Scott in a statement.
‘It is important for us to understand the nature of these biases in order to reduce or eliminate [the biases].’
Just couldn’t help themselves, I suppose. They went from something banal—babies can identify the familiar better the novel—to something asinine. All that was missing was the suggestion to create a government program to eliminate “racism” in babies.
Thanks to Al Perrella for suggesting this topic.