How do children understand social groups?

Research has shown that all of the characteristics we use to describe people and groups can be boiled down to two fundamental dimensions: warmth (e.g., fairness, kindness, compassion) and competence (e.g., intelligence, ability, assertiveness). These dimensions are important for understanding intergroup attitudes, as the types of attitudes and emotions elicited by a group are often determined by how warm and competent that group is perceived. The Stereotype Content Model (SCM) states that groups seen as both warm and competent are generally admired; these groups are often the majority ingroup in a society. Groups seen as cold and competent are generally envied (e.g., Asian Americans). Groups seen as warm but incompetent are generally pitied (e.g., the elderly), while groups seen as cold and incompetent are generally hated (e.g., drug addicts).

In a recent study at our lab, we examined whether children at 5 years and 9 years of age would use the dimensions of warmth and competence to rate a number of social groups the same way that adults would. We wanted to know if children would use these dimensions independently (that is, understand that kindness does not imply intelligence) and if children would use these dimensions to place commonly known social groups in the warmth by competence space as predicted by the SCM.

Example images depicting different kinds of people

To do this, we created images to depict groups that adults rated as falling into each of the four categories delineated by the SCM. The groups were: Americans and teachers (admired category), scientists and rich people (envied category), blind people and old people (pitied category), and poor people and homeless people (hated category). Then we had children rate the groups’ warmth and competence by asking how nice and how smart they thought the groups were.

We found that in contrast to adults, children do not use these two dimensions independently. Nice and smart ratings for each group were highly correlated, indicating that children consider kindness and intelligence to be similar. When we compared children’s ratings to adults’ ratings, we found that children’s judgments of which groups were smart or not strongly mapped onto adults’ judgments. This indicates that children and adults have similar understandings of what it means to be smart and similar beliefs about which social groups are intelligent. When we examined the warmth ratings, we found that the 5-year-old children’s warmth ratings were not aligned with adults’ ratings but that 9-year-old children’s ratings were. This indicates that children’s understanding of warmth and what it means for a social group to be nice develops slower than their understanding of competence.

Our results suggest that young children have trouble understanding that a social group can be highly competent (and thus high in social status) but not especially warm; they assume that intelligent, powerful groups must be kind as well. These findings hold implications for how children’s intergroup attitudes and beliefs develop and how and when children’s beliefs might differ from adults’ beliefs.