When we talk to children about the characteristics of boys and girls, our choice of words and syntax can profoundly affect what they take out of the conversation. Even attempts to dispel stereotypes can backfire: As we recently reported, children may believe that boys are inherently better at this subject and that girls have to work harder when they say that girls are “as good as” Boys are into math.
Other work has shown that “generic” language can also maintain stereotypes: for example, if boys “like to play soccer”, children can believe it all Boys like to play soccer, or a love for soccer is an integral part of being a boy.
Now a study in Psychological science shows that when children hear this type of generic language, they not only make assumptions about the mentioned group, but also draw conclusions unmentioned Groups. That is, when children hear that boys love to play soccer, they can conclude that girls don’t.
To investigate these types of conclusions, New York University’s Kelsey Moty and Marjorie Rhodes first asked 287 children, ages 4-6, to watch a video about a city inhabited by two groups of people: Zarpies and “Gorps”. First, a narrator introduced these groups and outlined some of their characteristics (Zarpies, for example, “like to climb high fences”, while Gorps “like to draw stars on their knees”).
The children then saw more Zarpies and Gorps while hearing either general or specific statements about them. For example, a generic statement would be “Zarpies are good at making pizza”, while a specific statement would be “This Zarpies are good at making pizza”.
Eventually, the participants saw another Zarpie and Gorp and were asked if each of them was good at making pizza (or what activity the testimony was about).
Consistent with previous work, children who heard the general statement were more likely than those who heard the specific statement to conclude that the new Zarpie was good at making pizza. However, these participants also rather concluded that it was the new Gorp Not bake well in pizza. That is, the generic language seemed to lead the children to make assumptions about even members of the unmentioned group.
Interestingly, these conclusions were drawn from children as young as four and a half years old. And as the kids got older, they were more likely to make them: almost all of the 7 year olds who had heard the generic statement said that the new Zarpie was good at making pizza and that the new gorp was not good at making pizza ( A group of adults also judged almost unanimously in this direction).
Could it just be that the kids were shown two seemingly opposing groups, so just assume that a Gorp has to be the opposite of a Zarpie in every way? A later study suggests that this is not the case. In this experiment, the video was presented by either a knowledgeable narrator who lived in the neighborhood or an unrecognized narrator who was visiting for the first time. Based on general statements, the children again made conclusions about the group not mentioned – but only if the speaker had knowledge. This suggests that children are actually thinking about what a speaker knows and what information they want to convey in order to draw conclusions.
Overall, the work then suggests that children (like adults) to do Draw conclusions about unmentioned categories when hearing general statements – especially when you think the speaker knows what they’re talking about. So it’s easy to see how generic language can inadvertently maintain gender stereotypes.
Of course, the researchers didn’t explicitly test children’s beliefs about boys and girls: instead, they used the fictional groups of Zarpies and Gorps, precisely so that the children would not be influenced by existing stereotypes. But it would still be interesting to know if children draw similar conclusions about boys and girls – perhaps researchers could try to minimize the influence of existing stereotypes by using fictional activities instead (for example, telling children that girls are good at “Plarpen” are). what would you think of a boy’s plarping skills?). Still, the study provides another striking example of how the way we talk to children affects their belief in social groups.
– The unintended consequences of the things we say: What general statements do children communicate through categories not mentioned
Matthew Warren (@ MattBWarren) is editor of BPS Biomedarticles