➢ Minimal groups: The basis of intergroup thinking?

What makes us affiliate with social groups? Clearly one answer lies in the rich experiences groups provide, such as those found within groups based on family and friendship. But will we affiliate with groups even when none of these rich experiences are present? An old tradition in adult social psychology suggests that the answer is a resounding yes! Adults placed into randomly created, previously unfamiliar social groups immediately prefer these “minimal” social groups. If children show these same preferences, it might help to explain why they seem so quick to acquire intergroup attitudes and stereotypes.
Work from our lab suggests that children do indeed show these “minimal” group preferences by at least age 3. After being placed into groups based on T-shirt color or other such simple cues, children come to prefer their ingroup, remember more positive behaviors associated with the ingroup, and interpret ambiguous situations in ways that favor the ingroup. Ongoing research explores how these preferences change as more concrete information about the groups is acquired, and how the group representations that form in this way differ from “real” social group memberships, such as those based on race, gender, nationality, and so on.

➢ The cognitive foundations of social hierarchy

While the tendency to prefer social ingroups is widespread, it is not the only factor contributing to social evaluations of groups. Another critical component is the recognition and internalization of social status disparities between groups. How do children encode these status disparities, and how does recognition of social hierarchy affect intergroup attitudes, as well as other inferences about and behavior toward members of social groups? We are particularly interested in how ingroup positivity interacts with social status sensitivity—for example, when an individual belongs to a group that is disadvantaged or socially stigmatized.

➢ Developing conceptions of fairness

From a young age, children prefer equal outcomes to unequal outcomes, particularly when they are disadvantaged by inequality. Perhaps more surprisingly, recent work shows that young children will intervene on behalf of others to ensure that resources are divided equitably, even in cases in which they do not stand to benefit from the resources. However, these apparently strong preferences for fairness are occasionally at odds with children’s unfair behavior. 

Our lab is interested in understanding these inconsistencies by examining the factors that influence children’s decisions about when and how to be fair. Some of our recent projects have investigated how real-world social categories (e.g., gender) influence fairness judgments and decisions. We have also asked whether we can artificially manipulate children’s fairness preferences through use of minimal groups. Finally, we are examining the flexibility of fairness norms and fairness norm enforcement. So far, our research suggests that young children are fairly inflexible in their fairness judgments when free to divide resources in any way that they want. However, groups may importantly influence their decisions if an unfair outcome is necessary.

➢ Groups and culture

Most research on children’s group-based reasoning focuses on the United States, and on social groups like race and gender. But different cultures divide the social space in very different ways, and highlight different sorts of group boundaries. Ongoing cross-cultural research explores how children reason about different sorts of groups, such as caste in India, skin color in Brazil, and race/ethnicity in South Africa, Taiwan, and Japan. The hope is that cross-cultural research will reveal what is universal about emerging social cognition as well as what varies across cultures.


➢ The development of social ontology.

Our world is filled with institutions that exist only because we all intend for them to exist: dollar bills are not inherently money, dollar bills are only valuable because we assign dollar bills the status of money in our society. Similarly, many of our social roles (teams we are members of or occupations we fulfill) are not roles we possess inherently, but because we intend to fill them with the consent of our community. Our research explores children’s understanding of how a community’s intentions can create function (e.g., money) and social roles (e.g., group membership). From a young age, children believe that social group membership is based in the mutual intentions of the community: for example, a person is in a group because the person intends to be a group member with the consent of the group. However, children have more difficulty understanding that some human-made objects like dollar bills only function as money because we intend them to be. This insight develops in the elementary school years.