By Marc Halusic and Ann Bettencourt, Ph.D.

We all know that who your kids’ friends are can have all sorts of influences on what they do, how they feel, and how successful they are in school. That’s because friends show each other which kinds of behaviors are valued, and which are to be avoided. But there is another way in which friends are important to meaningful outcomes for your child. Numerous, positive friendships with members of other ethnic groups have the potential to decrease their bias toward those groups. For example, research (Shook & Fazio, 2008) shows that, compared to white college students assigned to live with a white roommate, white students who were randomly assigned to live with an African American roommate showed less racial bias at the end of the academic year. Other studies indicate that it is important to cultivate multiple cross-ethnic friendships because positive associations with one individual may not change views about the ethnic group as a whole.

While having an ethnically diverse network of friends may help children to develop more tolerant and inclusive attitudes, the question still remains as to why some children are more likely to affiliate with children from other ethnic groups, while others affiliate with just their own. Clearly, opportunities for cross-ethnic interactions, through diverse neighborhoods and schools, play a critical role. Yet, areas with large proportions of a variety of different ethnic groups are frequently characterized by a sort of “self-imposed segregation.”

Delving deeper into why children might reach out beyond their own groups, new research by Tropp, O’Brien, and Migacheva (2014), published in the Journal of Social Issues, examines how children’s perceptions of the norms and attitudes of their same-ethnicity peers can influence children’s interest in forming cross-ethnic friendships. This article was published in a special issue, titled, “Social Exclusion of Children: Developmental Origins of Prejudice,” edited by Dominic Abrams and Melanie Killen and explaind in a video interview here.

To investigate these issues, Tropp and colleagues conducted two survey studies of many children. For the first study, children were recruited from two different middle schools, one predominantly white and the other predominantly African American. The children answered questions concerning how much they believed their same-ethnic peers approved of having cross-ethnic friends (inclusion norms), how often same-ethnic peers teased or told jokes about kids from other ethnic groups (exclusion norms), how much they personally would like to have cross-ethnic friendships, and how many cross-ethnic friendships they had already.

The findings indicated that, when they perceive that peers from their own ethnic group endorse inclusion norms, children are more likely to report interest in having cross-ethnic friendships; this association held even after controlling for the number of cross-ethnic friends those children had already. By contrast, perceiving that peers from their own ethnic group held exclusion norms had no detectable influence on their willingness to make cross-ethnic friends. The researchers replicated these findings in a second study, with white and Latino children from ethnically diverse schools. Again, Tropp and colleagues found that, when children perceived peers from their own ethnic group to be supportive of cross-ethnic friendships, they themselves were more interested in forming those friendships.

It is important to highlight that these studies investigated children’s perceptions of norms, rather than the actual prevailing norms of their peers per se. Other research (Perkins, Haines, & Rice, 2005) has shown that, despite what actual norms, there is a significant impact of perceived peer norms on students’ behavior. For example, college students often believe that their peers binge drink more often than they actually do, and interventions designed to accurately inform students of actual peer drinking behavior have been shown to reduce binge drinking. Following from this perceptions of peer norms may play a role in the development of cross-ethnic friendships and intergroup harmony. The information gained from Tropp and colleagues’ studies offers a promising first step toward creating interventions that may seek to change perceptions of peer norms, and in turn, encourage the development of cross-ethnic acceptance and friendship.


Abrams, D. & Killen, M. (Editors, 2014). Social Exclusion of Children: Developmental Origins of Prejudice. Journal of Social Issues, 70 (1), 1–195.

Perkins, H., Haines, M. P., & Rice, R. (2005). Misperceiving the college drinking norm and related problems: A nationwide study of exposure to prevention information, perceived norms and student alcohol misuse. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 66(4), 470.

Shook, N. J., & Fazio, R. H. (2008). Interracial roommate relationships: An experimental field test of the contact hypothesis. Psychological Science, 19, 717–723.

Tropp, L. R., O'Brien, T. C., & Migacheva, K. (2014). How Peer Norms of Inclusion and Exclusion Predict Children's Interest in Cross‐Ethnic Friendships. Journal of Social Issues, 70, 151-166.

About the Authors

Anne Bettencourt

Ann Bettencourt, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychological Sciences at the University of Missouri.

Marc Halusic

Marc Halusic researches self determination theory and topics such as the relation between autonomy and personality development as well as autonomy supportive teaching styles.

You are reading

We Can Get Along

The Black Criminal, the Sexy Latin, and the Invisible Native

Media Representations of Ethnic and Racial Minorities Remain Problematic

How to Reduce Sexism: The Latest Research

A new JSI issue explores techniques that can reduce sexism in the real world.

Milgram at 50: Is It Time for a Rethink?

New research questions the typical interpretation of Milgram's famous research.