Most people learn generic language by the time they enter preschool. New research suggests that hearing generic language that describes people, like "girls cry, boys don't" can act a foundation for a child to learn stereotypes and cultural biases.
The human brain likes to stereotype because it can process information about a person faster. However, stereotypes can be damaging when people start prejudicing against a gender or a race.
In the present study, researchers from New York University and Princeton University found out how the use of generic language creates stereotypes in children's brains. They worked on an idea called ‘social essentialism’ which says that people belonging to a certain race and gender will have certain differentiating characteristics from the rest of the population.
For the study, researchers created a set of experiments. In the first experiment, parents and their children were introduced to a fictional group of people called ‘Zarpies’ presented via a book that had pictures of these characters and text describing them in detail. The book was read out to children twice and their parents were also asked to read it two times.
Each Zarpie was given a distinct trait. This was done to eliminate any pre-existing race biases. The children were made to associate the characters with essentialist beliefs. They found that children were more likely to remember traits of the characters as whole rather than on individual levels.
In another part of the experiment researchers found how social essentialism is transferred from parent to child. Parents were asked to read two paragraphs describing a Zarpie. One description of the Zarpie was that these people are different (essentialist condition) from other people while the other described them as similar to other people (non-essentialist condition).
These parents were then asked to tell children about these Zarpies via a storybook that had pictures but no text.
Researchers found that parents were more likely to produce negative evaluation of the characters in essentialist condition than in the non-essentialist condition.
"Taken together, these results showed that generic language is a mechanism by which social essentialist beliefs, as well as tendencies towards stereotyping and prejudice, can be transmitted from parents to children," said the study's lead author, Marjorie Rhodes, an assistant professor in NYU's Department of Psychology.
Other studies have shown how the generic language used by parents can de-motivate a child from an activity. For example when girls are told that "all girls are bad at math", they will be less motivated to learn math.
"Understanding the mechanisms that underlie the development of social essentialism could provide guidance on how to disrupt these processes, and thus perhaps on how to reduce stereotyping and prejudice. We often change the way we speak about a given social group, so grounding these changes in mechanisms shown to influence the formation of essentialist beliefs could lead to more effective efforts to reduce societal prejudice," said Sarah-Jane Leslie, an assistant professor in Princeton's Department of Philosophy and co-author of the study.