Laurie Wang

An article published in August by Yale researchers Gina Roussos and Yarrow Dunham describes how children perceive warmth and competence when assessing social groups.

Roussos, a graduate student working in Yale’s Intergroup Relations Lab, and Dunham, a psychology professor and the director of the Social Cognitive Development Lab at Yale, said that research has long suggested that warmth and competence are key components in how adults understand social groups. However, they added, the purpose of their study was to determine whether children also use perceptions of these attributes when classifying and understanding community networks. The study found that although children are aware of the presence of both warmth and competence in different groups of people, they do not treat the characteristics as independent of one another.

The researchers studied children reacting to images of eight different social groups — Americans, the rich, the blind, the old, the homeless, the poor, scientists and teachers — who all displayed different combinations of warmth and competence. They recorded how the children classified each image and subsequently judged the warmth and competence of that image, by asking the children how “nice” or “smart” that person was. The children’s responses were then compared to adult classifications of the same social groups.

Although children’s judgments and understandings of a person’s competence reflected those of adults, their perceptions of warmth were shaped by factors that, for adults, only influence perceptions of competence. In other words, children are more likely to base their perception of someone’s warmth on the person’s reliability and intelligence, whereas adults only use those factors to assess competence. For instance, adults viewed blind individuals as “nicer” than the children did, and the children viewed the rich as nicer than the adults did, because the children considered competence as an indicator for warmth.

Dunham said children’s understanding of competence develops earlier than their understanding of warmth.

“[The study’s] results suggest that from quite early in development children are young sociologists, trying to understand how groups function in their world and what characterizes those groups,” Dunham wrote in a Friday email to the News.

Knowing the childhood origin of different types of biases or stereotypes, like those implied by valuations of warmth and competence, may help researchers develop methods to curb those biases, Roussos said. She added that childhood is an important time to study the development of prejudice because attitudes are most malleable during this period. The next step of studying children’s perceptions of warmth and competence would involve determining whether information about warmth has greater influence on perceptions of competence, or vice versa, she added.

“It’s a challenge to study children that young reporting impressions of social groups, but if we are ever going to understand the origins of prejudice, we have to start young,” said Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton, known for her work studying the relationship between warmth and competence in adults.

While the current research suggests that children are able to view competence as a distinct trait before they can do the same for warmth, further studies would need to manipulate either the competence or warmth information given to the children and then see whether their reactions to those traits change, Roussos said.

The study also noted the differences in children’s understanding of groups that were warm versus those that were competent.

“Children have a hard time understanding groups that are high in competence, but not in warmth,” Roussos said. “They seem to think that if you’re competent, you’re also really nice. It’s interesting to think that kids might not understand that people who are smart aren’t necessarily good or nice, and that’s important for studying kids’ attitudes to groups.”

Dunham said that further studies could investigate how children view the relationship between warmth and competence and social status, for example, whether they expect groups that they see as more competent to have a higher social status than groups perceived as less competent.

There were 72 child participants in the study.