People Are More Likely To Misread A Black Child As Angry When They Believe The Child Is Older

By Emily Reynolds

Research has found significant racial biases when judging the emotions of others. Black people are more likely to be misjudged as angry, for example, and recent research has suggested that even children are victims of this “anger bias”. Black children are also frequently subject to “adultification” — being perceived as older and more mature than White peers.

A new study explores the links between these two phenomena, finding that the older adults believe Black children to be, the more likely they are to (incorrectly) judge them to be angry too. Writing in Cognition and Emotion, Alison N. Cooke and Amy G. Halberstadt from North Carolina State University argue that such judgements could have serious consequences for Black children.

Participants, 152 parents from the US, viewed forty expressions on the faces of children, representing happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, or fear, and had to indicate which emotion they saw (none of children made an angry expression, but participants were able to indicate that the emotion was one of anger). Participants were also shown still images of each of the forty children displaying a neutral expression and asked to indicate the age of the child.

While the race of the children did not make a significant difference to their perceived age, participants were more likely to incorrectly judge Black children to be angry, replicating previous research. And the interaction between the race of the child and their perceived age was also a predictor of anger bias — that is, the older participants believed a Black child to be, the more likely they were to mischaracterise them as angry. For White children, however, there was no such increase in mischaracterisation.

So although participants didn’t perceive the Black children to be any older as a group than the White children, they did perceive them as being angrier, particularly when they believed that a Black child as an individual was older. This may result in more serious consequences for older-seeming Black children than for their White counterparts. A best case scenario, the team argues, would be “confusion that individuals could attempt to clarify or ignore”. Other outcomes, however, could be incredibly serious: targeting by the police, suspension from school, or the perceiver getting angry or violent towards the child.

Future research could explore the perceptions of different demographics: how do police, teachers, or social workers perceive Black and White children, and what impact does it have on the way such children are treated? And how is perceived anger linked to other biases, like the weak bonds teachers feel towards students of colour, for example? “Our findings are important for anyone interacting with children, and particularly those in education and law enforcement,” Cooke says. “It really drives home that there is widespread bias in how Black children are viewed and that this can have significant consequences for their well-being.”

Looking at the psychological elements of systemic racism alone, without considering wider societal factors, is unlikely to cause wholesale change. Identifying and acknowledging them, however, is crucial to our understanding of the experiences young Black people have in the UK, US and beyond.

Adultification, anger bias, and adults’ different perceptions of Black and White children

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest