Study Finds 9-Month-Old Babies Are Racist

MSNBC reports this:

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.

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Thanks to Al Perrella for suggesting this topic.

18 Comments

  1. I had a racist dog. A white German Shepard — Aryan dog if ever there was one. She didn’t like anyone with a skin tone darker than pale.

    I don’t remember if he was exhibiting his racist outlook by 5 months. It was definately evident by 9 months.

  2. The researchers, at least, experimented on a group comprising other than university undergraduates. They deserve some credit for this.

  3. Maybe the babies were just confused. It’s so difficult to keep up with what’s racist and what’s not racist today. For instance, George Zimmerman looks like he is hispanic or latino but he’s white. Elizabeth Warren who looks white as sugar is an Indian. I must be racist because I was unable to tell who is Indian and who is white.

  4. Paper is accessible from here, also the link in the text uses a Cornell proxy URL.

    No need to do the homework though, “For the behavioral analysis, an additional 43 infants were
    excluded” and “An additional 23 participants were excluded”. The participation numbers already have the excluded removed.

  5. I suppose this means, or will come to mean after further newspeak massaging, that I will soon be forgiven of my “racist” subconscious, due to the settled science concluding that it’s “biological”.
    What a relief that will be.

  6. @Will,

    Whoa, you raise an interesting point! Were all the black faces black, or were some of them black like Obama is black? Or did showing a mixed-race face constitute “operator error”?

  7. Basically, this ‘scientific’ report is racist. It is a report on the brains of white caucasian babies. Imagine if it was a report on other ‘non-white’ African babies? All hell would break loose.
    Fact is that the the world is getting sicker and sicker and science is being turned into a gimmick.

    I’m sure that some fine day science will be back on the right track but until then it’s back to a flat earth.

  8. Lisa Scott and her cohorts seem to be suggesting that for white babies not to be racist, the white families need to have black nannies. Like the good old days.

    But wait I thought olden times were more racist. I am so confused!

  9. As I understand it, interpretation of flat projected images is a learned skill. For all the fuss and blather we have no idea at all what the babies were actually seeing.

  10. “Human beings are better at finding subtleties in the familiar.”

    Which is something the hippies do not want people to do: even though it is physically WIRED into the brains of everybody.

    As this example so clearly illustrates, as per classical socialist principles, the brilliant conceptualizations of hippies are absolutely not rooted in reality (i.e. are pure, unreal, abstraction-theory).

    So enter hate-crimes, i.e. thought control.

    You know, I often find myself wondering if these people have lost the ‘right’ to be considered part of the human race. I am convinced that the so-called “superior ability hippies have at abstracting” consists of one part of the ability to call an apple a pear, and BELIEVE it; and another part of having the ability to relentlessly abstract erroneously (which is a form of lying, since they knowingly do not verify their ‘thought products.’)

    While we True Scots, er Christians, do ‘believe’, we do so in a surprisingly rational way. A great ‘convincer’ the bible has its is deep internal consistency, and its explanatory power as relating to this world we all live in today – the older you get, the more and more you come to realize this. So it really is no wonder the hippies so absolutely HATE Christianity – it has a type of perfection… and they have toilet-product: how it must drive them mad.

  11. “Will says:
    7 May 2012 at 6:06 pm

    Does this mean I can sue my parents for not being a mixed race couple?”

    That’s an interesting point! My wife and I ARE a mixed race couple with children long grown.
    I wonder how “mixed race” babies would react. I suspect they would key on their mother, who provides most of their immediate care, and would exhibit “racist” tendencies towards their father.

  12. Am I getting this?
    48-43 = 5 babies?

    They derived their insight from the results of 5 babies.

    For claims as bold as Lisa’s would even 48 be enough?

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