Keith Payne

Keith Payne Ph.D.

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Genetic disorder knocks out prejudice

Genetic disorder knocks out prejudice.

Posted Apr 28, 2010

To someone with Williams syndrome, every face looks like a friend - even snarling, angry faces that signal most people to steer clear. Williams is a rare genetic disorder, whose most striking feature is a deficit in social fear. New research suggests that Williams may also confer a strange "deficit" in prejudice.

Andreia Santos and colleagues tested 20 children with Williams between the ages of 7-16, and 20 children without Williams of the same age range (presumably they were all White, though the article does not specify). The test was simple, showing pairs of people side by side. Half of the pairs differed by gender, the other half by race. For the test of racial prejudice, the children were told simple stories that included good or bad traits, like kind, pretty, smart, and bad, ugly, and stupid. Then they were asked to pick which person in the pair the story was about. The children without Williams showed strong evidence of racial bias, selecting the White person most of the time for good traits, and the Black person most of the time for bad traits. But the children with Williams did not show any evidence of bias. They picked the White and Black characters at the same rate as chance.

If this were the only comparison the researchers made it would be tempting to think that the Williams children just didn't understand the test. After all, people with Williams syndrome typically have some cognitive disabilities. But the researchers also did a gender stereotyping version of the test. It worked the same as the race test, but included stereotypical sex roles instead of good and bad traits. Williams children had no trouble guessing that the house cleaner was probably the woman, and the mechanic was probably the man, and they did so at the same rate as the control children. They understood the test, and they showed the gender stereotypes that are typical of children their age.

So, what should we make of this lack of racial bias? First, the thing we should most definitely NOT conclude is that there is a "gene for racism," or that people are "hard wired" for anything of the sort. We know from other research that although very young infants can distinguish between men and women, it takes a few years of development before they can even tell the difference between people of different races. They might learn race biases early - some studies show racial bias as young as 3-5 years old - but they have to learn it. This study is a good reminder that genes don't code for specific behaviors or beliefs. Genes make people more or less sensitive to aspects of their environment.

Santos and colleagues argue that Williams syndrome makes kids insensitive to social fear. The interesting thing about Williams kids - and a scary thing for their parents - is that they will have complete trust in complete strangers. They are famously friendly, and love to talk. A story on NPR this week described a little girl with Williams, who charmed teachers and staff by ending all her conversations with "I love you." The girl's mother found it less charming, because she would have the same kind of "I love you" conversations with the salesman at Circuit city, the grocery store clerk, anybody.

Still, Williams children are not totally fearless. They are just as afraid of non-social threats like spiders and bees as other children. The fascinating thing about this disorder is how remarkably specific it is. It's this specificity that offers a new perspective on how racial prejudice works in America today. At bottom, this research is important because it suggests that social fear is at the root of racial prejudice.

This race-fear link is consistent with my own research showing that healthy White adults are more likely to mistake a harmless object like a cell phone or wallet for a gun if it belongs to a Black man. And research by Kurt Hugenberg showing that when people view facial expressions of emotion, the darker the skin color of the face, the more likely people are to think the face looks angry.

The most interesting unanswered question for me is what kind of fear makes the difference between developing or not developing racial prejudice? Is it a particular fear of Black people, based on stereotypes, as dangerous or criminal? Or is it the more general fear of uncertain and awkward interactions with people who look different? Join the conversation by commenting below.

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About the Author

Keith Payne

Keith Payne is an associate professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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