Children's Use of Social Category Information in Predicting Social Relationships

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Anna Shusterman




English (United States)


Previous research has shown that children form concepts of specific social categories, exhibit a preference for individuals belonging to a certain social category, and demonstrate essentialist reasoning about some social categories from a fairly young age. The current experiment sought to connect research between these three aspects of reasoning about social categories to examine how children use information about a social category to evaluate relationships. We propose that children can either reason about others' relationships using social categories either under an associative framework or a causal framework. We hypothesize that older children would reason under a causal framework based on increased understanding of the different underlying reasons for each relationship, while younger children would reason under an associative or similarity-based framework, seeing a social category as a cross-cutting factor that underpins a sense of common membership across a variety of relationships. In Experiment 1, children were asked to predict from a series of cartoon faces which two children belonged in a specific relationship with the target child- either family, friend, or neighbor. One of the choices matched the target in terms of race, while the other did not. Overall there was a significant interaction between relationship type and children's response, and an age effect such that this pattern held for older but not younger children. In addition, children most often selected the race 'match' response for family trials but not for other relationships, hinting at stronger essentialist beliefs associated with race when used to evaluate family relationships. In Experiment 2, children were asked to perform the same task, but the faces matched in term of gender instead of race. Here, we did not find a significant interaction between relationship type and answer. Future studies should examine the response pattern across a wider variety of social categories to investigate how essentialist beliefs fluctuate based on the specific category-based inference children are making and the specific social categories being assessed.

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