Describing Groups To Children Using Generic Language Can Accidentally Teach Them Social Stereotypes

By Matthew Warren

When we talk to children about the characteristics of boys and girls, our word choice and syntax can profoundly shape what they take away from the conversation. Even attempts to dispel stereotypes can backfire: as we recently reported, telling kids that girls are “as good as” boys at maths can actually leave them believing that boys are naturally better at the subject and that girls have to work harder.

Other work has shown that “generic” language can also perpetuate stereotypes: saying that boys “like to play football”, for instance, can make children believe that all boys like to play football, or that liking football is a fundamental part of being a boy.

Now a study in Psychological Science shows that when kids hear this kind of generic language, they don’t just make assumptions about the group that is mentioned — they also make inferences about unmentioned groups. That is, if children hear that boys like to play football, they might deduce that girls do not.

To examine these kinds of inferences, Kelsey Moty and Marjorie Rhodes from New York University first asked 287 kids aged 4 to 6 to watch a video about a town that is home to two groups of people: “zarpies” and “gorps”. First, a narrator introduced these groups, outlining a few of their characteristics (zarpies, for instance, “like to climb tall fences”, while gorps “like to draw stars on their knees”).

The kids then saw more zarpies and gorps, while hearing either generic or specific statements about them. A generic statement, for instance, would be “zarpies are good at baking pizza”, while a specific statement would be “this zarpie is good at baking pizza”. 

Finally, the participants saw another zarpie and another gorp, and were asked whether each of these were good at baking pizza (or whatever activity the statement had been about).

Consistent with past work, kids who had heard the generic statement were more likely than those who had heard the specific statement to infer that the new zarpie was good at baking pizza. But these participants were also more likely to infer that the new gorp was not good at baking pizza. That is, generic language seemed to lead the children to make assumptions even about members of the unmentioned group.

Interestingly, these inferences were made by kids as young as 4-and-a-half. And as the children got older, the more likely they were to make them: almost all 7-year-olds who had heard the generic statement said that the new zarpie was good at baking pizza and that the new gorp was not good at baking pizza (a group of adults also made near unanimous judgements along these lines).

Could it simply be that the children had been shown two apparently contrasting groups, so just assume that a gorp must be the opposite of a zarpie in all ways? A later study suggests that this isn’t the case. In this experiment, the video was presented either by a knowledgeable narrator who lived in the neighbourhood, or an unknowledgeable one who was visiting for the first time.  The children again made inferences about the unmentioned group based on generic statements — but only when the speaker was knowledgeable. This suggests that children actually reason about what a speaker knows and what information they intend to convey, in order to make their inferences.

Overall, then the work suggests that children (like adults) do make inferences about unmentioned categories when they hear generic statements — particularly if they think that the speaker knows what they’re talking about. So it’s easy to see how generic language could inadvertently perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Of course, the researchers didn’t explicitly test the kids’ beliefs about boys and girls: they used the fictional groups of zarpies and gorps instead, precisely so the kids wouldn’t be influenced by existing stereotypes. But it would still be interesting to know whether children make similar inferences about boys and girls — perhaps researchers could try and minimise the influence of existing stereotypes by using fictional activities instead (for instance, if kids were told that girls were good at “plarping”, what would they think about a boy’s plarping skills?). Still, the study provides yet another striking example of how the way we speak to children shapes their beliefs about social groups.

The Unintended Consequences of the Things We Say: What Generic Statements Communicate to Children About Unmentioned Categories

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest