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Report: Children Can Absorb Social Bias Signals from Adults

A new study finds even very young children pick up on signals of nonverbal biases among adults. (Pixabay)
A new study finds even very young children pick up on signals of nonverbal biases among adults. (Pixabay)
January 3, 2017

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – To adults, it's sometimes unclear how much goes over kids' heads and how much they're absorbing. According to research from the University of Washington, children as young as four could be picking up nonverbal social biases from adults.

Allison Skinner, lead author of the research, said this study was meant to go further than others that already had shown kids adopt biases from their parents.

"This being one of the first steps to talk more about how kids are actually picking it up from the culture, how they're absorbing it," she said.

Researchers took a group of four- and five-year-olds and showed them two videos. An actor greeted two women with an action, such as giving one of them a toy. In the first, the actor spoke in a positive manner, smiling and speaking in a warm tone. In the second, the actor scowled and spoke gruffly. Two-thirds of the children favored the recipient of the positive signals.

Researchers then took the study a step further. They added "friends," with shirts the same color, to the two women who had received the positive and negative signals. They found the children's preferences and biases extended beyond individuals, to members of groups. Four out of five children preferred the friends of the woman who received positive signals.

Skinner explained that the research mirrors what kids most likely experience in daily life, and said parents may need to check even their innermost feelings if they don't want to pass on their own biases.

"Really be aware that, 'Oh, I'm interacting with someone of another group, perhaps a group that my child doesn't have very much exposure to,'" she added. "'So, I need to be really aware of how I'm behaving, and how much I'm giving them eye contact and all these various things, and making sure that I'm giving a positive message.'"

Skinner said parents who have diverse groups of friends also may be shaping kids to be inclusive of people who are different from them.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY