A new study has found that children with a neurodevelopmental disorder called Williams syndrome, have no racial biases.
Children with the disorder are overly friendly because they do not fear strangers. Now, a study shows that these children also do not develop negative attitudes about other ethnic groups, even though they show patterns of gender stereotyping found in other children.
"This is the first evidence that different forms of stereotypes are biologically dissociable," Nature quoted the study's lead author Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, as saying.
Adults with WS show abnormal activity in a brain structure called the amygdala, which is involved in responding to social threats and triggering unconscious negative emotional reactions to other races.
Racial bias has been tied to fear: adults are more likely to associate negative objects and events, such as electric shocks, with people of other ethnic groups compared with those of their own group.
However, Meyer-Lindenberg said that his study offers the strongest evidence so far that social fear leads to racial stereotyping.
The team showed 18 pictures to 20 children with and 20 without WS all of whom were of white European origin. Then they asked the children, aged 5-16 years, to choose individuals in the drawings who might engage in sex-specific activities, such as playing with dolls. Both groups of children showed the same patterns of gender stereotyping.
Children in the study were asked to associate characters in stories to pictures of dark- and light-skinned people.
The children also heard stories about individuals, represented in drawings, who had negative attributes, such as being naughty and dirty, or positive traits, such as being pretty and smart. They were then asked to choose whether the story was about a light-skinned or a dark-skinned individual in the drawings.
Children without WS favoured positive characteristics for the light-skinned children and negative features for dark-skinned individuals, consistent with previous studies on both white and black children, but those with WS lacked any bias.
Meyer-Lindenberg said that the obvious conclusion is that social fear is not required for gender stereotyping, but it is important in forming racial stereotypes.
The study has been published today in Current Biology.