German researchers have determined that six-year-old children are loving angels, but eight-year-olds regularly indulge in a "hatred for opposing groups." Especially boys. Relax, though! It's not your fault.
At what point in our young lives do we start thinking of people who are different from us as enemies?
Love for one's own group and hatred for perceived outsiders are separate attitudes that emerge at different stages of a child's development, according to University of Erfurt researchers David Buttelmann and Robert Böhm.
In the journal Psychological Science, they present evidence that six-year-olds show clear bias in favor of a group they belong to. However, hatred for opposing groups doesn't show up until two years later.
Yes, Germans are researching the underpinnings of racism and extreme nationalism, which is nice, if perhaps belated. Buttelmann and Böhm devised a classroom-type experiment in which 45 kids were divided into two groups. They then got "15 'positive resources' (including a cookie and a teddy bear) and 15 'negative resources' (including a spider and a piece of broken glass)" and were given a chance to drop the resources into one of three boxes: one for their group, one for the other kids' group, and one neutral box.
The results: While kids across the board allocated the good resources mostly to their own group, older kids overwhelmingly dumped the negative resources on the opposing group, even though they could've dumped them on a neutral party. Why? "[O]ut-group hate was the dominant motivation for the eight-year-olds' distributions of negative resources," Buttelman and Böhm concluded:
"Overall, the results indicated that in-group love is already present in children of preschool age, and can motivate in-group-biased behavior," the researchers conclude, "whereas out-group hate develops only after a child's sixth birthday."
It's a pretty limited study, so there's not much more to infer from the data here. Are the triggers for in-group love and out-group hatred environmental, or biological, or both? The researchers seem to assume there's an environmental dimension: They want there to be some hope that you can prevent or blunt xenophobia if you work with a child before eight. That seems intuitive, but it doesn't seem to be proven by the experiment's scant data.
Anyway, take them at their word: If you work really, really hard around age six, there's an outside chance that you can take your child's natural affinity for people like him and direct it in loving, positive ways. But if you haven't fixed things by seven, your kid's probably going to be a suspicious, side-eye-looking shithead with a trench coat and a copy of the Turner Diaries. Or just a campus Republican. Or a hockey fan. Sort of takes the pressure off, doesn't it?