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Social categories guide

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PAPERSocial categories guide young children’s preferences for novelobjectsKristin Shutts, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Elizabeth S. SpelkeDepartment of Psychology, Harvard University, USAAbstractTo whom do children look when deciding on their own preferences? To address this question, 3-year-old children were asked tochoose between objects or activities that were endorsed by unfamiliar people who differed in gender, race (White, Black), or age(child, adult). In Experiment 1, children demonstrated robust preferences for objects and activities endorsed by children of theirown gender, but less consistent preferences for objects and activities endorsed by children of their own race. In Experiment 2,children selected objects and activities favored by people of their own gender and age. In neither study did most childrenacknowledge the influence of these social categories. These findings suggest that gender and age categories are encodedspontaneously and influence children’s preferences and choices. For young children, gender and age may be more powerful guidesto preferences than race.IntroductionHumans are extraordinarily gifted at using the socialworld to learn what works or does not, what’s good or bad,and what’s right or wrong. Social and cultural learningbegin at an early age (e.g. Bandura, 1965; Csibra &Gergely, 2006; Tomasello, Kruger & Ratner, 1993)and raise a question about children’s reliance oninformation provided by others: Whose input dochildren favor? Research suggests that adults gainknowledge from other people selectively, favoringinformants who are similar to thems elves along a varietyof dimens ions, including shared social group membership(e.g. Brock, 1965; Ryu, Park & Feick, 2006; Stotland,Zander & Natsoulas, 1961; Whittler & DiMeo, 1991). Thecategories of gender, race, and age are particularlyinfluential in many social contexts (Brewer, 1988; Fiske,1998). In the present experiments, we ask whether and towhat degree preschool-age children use these categoriesspontaneously to determine their own preferences fornovel objects and activities.Previous research provides evidence that like olderchildren, preschool-age children are positively disposedtoward individuals of their own gender, race, and age(for reviews, see Aboud, 1988; Levy & Killen, 2008;Quintana & McKown, 2008; Ruble, Martin & Berenbaum,2006). Naturalistic observations of children’s socialenvironments reveal that preschool-age children tend toplay with same-gender and same-age peers (French, 1987;La Freniere, Strayer & Gauthier, 1984; Maccoby &Jacklin, 1987; Martin & Fabes, 2001; Martin, Fabes,Evans & Wyman, 1999). When tested in laboratory-basedtasks that feature pictures of, or stories about, unfamiliarchildren, preschoolers say that they would prefer to befriends with other children of their own gender (e.g.Martin, 1989; Martin et al., 1999), an d majority-racechildren indicate that they would prefer to be friends withother children of their own race (Kircher & Fur by, 1971;Kowalski & Lo, 2001). Additionally, in studies ofevaluative inter-group bias, preschool-age childrenassign more positive than negative traits to individuals oftheir own gender (Albert & Porter, 1983; Yee & Brown,1994), as well as to individuals of their own race, at leastwhen that race has high status (Aboud, 1988; Bigler &Liben, 1993).In addition to showing early social and evaluativepreferences based on social group membership, youngchildren see individuals as having properties andpreferences in common with other people from thesame social category. Studies of children’s genderstereotyping, for example, provide evidence thatpreschool-age children are aware of sex-typed activitiesand preferences for objects, and use gender informationto predict who will like familiar items such as dolls andtrucks (Bauer & Coyne, 1997; Kuhn, Nash & Brucken,1978; Leinbach, Hort & Fagot, 1997; Martin, 1989;Martin & Little, 1990; Reis & Wright, 1982). Thus,young children are capable of learning about thetypical preferences of boys and girls in their socialenvironment.Address for correspondence: Kristin Shutts, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin – Madison, 1202 West Johnson Street, Madison, WI53706, USA; e-mail: [email protected]! 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.Developmental Science 13:4 (2010), pp 599–610 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00913.xOf particular relevance to the present work are studiesshowing that children use verbally labeled informationabout gender, age, ethnicity, and social class to guideinferences about shared novel properties of others(Diesendruck & haLevi, 2006; Gelman, Collman &Maccoby, 1986; Hirschfeld & Gelman, 1997; Taylor &Gelman, 1993). In a study of children aged 4–7 years, forexample, Gelman et al. (1986) assessed participants’ useof gender information to make inferences about novelbiological properties. For instance, after learning thatone child described as a girl had ‘ estro’ in her blood andthat another child described as a boy had ‘andro’ in hisblood, children inferred that a second girl had estrorather than andro in her blood. Other studies have shownthat children also use social categories to make inferencesabout other children’s preferences for novel objects andactivities (e.g. Diesendruck & haLevi, 2006; Martin,Eisenbud & Rose, 1995). Diesendruck and haLevi (2006),for example, found that when an adult labeled twopictures of children with the same ethnic label (e.g. Arab)and one picture with a different label (e.g. Jew), childrengeneralized novel activity preferences (e.g. ‘likes to playzigo’) along ethnic category lines (e.g. by indicating thatthe two Arab children liked to play zigo). These findingssuggest that young children’s social categories areproductive and support inferences about the behaviorof other people in new situations.If young children preferentially interact withindividuals of their own gender, race, and age, and ifthey assume that individuals who belong to the samesocial group share common properties and preferences,then preschool-age children might attend to socialcategory information of others when deciding on theirown preferences for new objects or activities. Indeed,studies of same-sex modeling have shown that whenyoung children are presented with multiple male andfemale models engaging in different behaviors, childrenpreferentially imitate actions demonstrated by


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