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The Development of Prejudice: A Brief Summary

Written by Tabitha. B | Provisional Psychologist, PsychPhys™

The development of prejudice is well-understood throughout childhood with the exception of infancy. Based upon several reviews (Aboud et al., 2012; Dunham et al., 2008; Raabe & Beelman, 2011), prejudice first emerges in three to four-year-olds, with these levels increasing (and peaking) during middle childhood (i.e. age six) before it begins to decrease in late childhood (i.e. age ten), with further decreases into early adolescence and eventually adulthood.

It is important to acknowledge that this pattern involves ‘explicit’ (i.e., conscious or deliberate) prejudice (McKeague et al., 2013). For example, an individual deliberately saying something nasty to an ethnic out-group member while walking down the street. It is also important to account for what is known as ‘implicit’ (i.e., unconscious or automatic) prejudice (Marx & Ko, 2012).

For example, an individual may unknowingly use more negative facial expressions when simply seeing an ethnic out-group member walking down the street. Whilst implicit prejudice is also first seen in three to four-year-olds, unlike explicit prejudice, the level of bias remains uniform into adulthood.

Findings indicating that prejudice emerges in early childhood (between three to four years of age) is consistent with perhaps the most commonly cited theoretical explanation of prejudice – social identity theory (Tajfel et al., 1979; for reviews see Hornsey, 2008). Simply put, this theory postulates that prejudice emerges on the basis of having a social (or group) identity, to maximise one’s self-esteem. Individuals may therefore tend to see their own group (and hence themselves) as being better than other groups. From a psychological perspective, this explanation may be considered ‘rich’. This is because it involves ‘higher order’ psychological capabilities that may not be evident in many species, and/or may require years of developmental maturity within humans (Abrams & Hogg, 1999; Zebrowitz et al., 2008).

More specifically, it requires having the capacity to form social identities, which in turn requires having the capacity for self-awareness (Abrams & Hogg, 2001). Consistent with the developmental patterns for prejudice described above, children aged between three and five years show capacity to form social identities as indicated by being able to correctly label their ‘gender’ and ‘ethnicity’.

Although this developmental pattern for ethnic ‘awareness’ may vary between white and non-white children. Moreover, evidence indicates that a major building block for this capacity – self-awareness – typically emerges no later than age two years of age (although some ethnic variation exists), as indicated by measures involving self-recognition (for a review see Brewer, 1991; for review also see Suddendorf & Butler, 2013). However, before concluding that prejudice does first emerge between three to four years, and inferring whether such a pattern may or may not be consistent with social identity theory. It must be acknowledged there is very little research that has adequately investigated whether prejudice (explicit or implicit) does or does not emerge before three years of age (i.e., infancy).

Ultimately, having a more complete understanding of when prejudice develops will shed light on theoretical debates about how or why prejudice develops, which in turn may lead to better efforts to reduce or even prevent prejudice from emerging.


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