Friday, April 30, 2010

no racial stereotypes or social fear

Discoverblog | People with Williams syndrome are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They are incredibly sociable, almost unnervingly so, and they approach strangers with the openness that most people reserve for close friends.

Their sociable streak is the result of a genetic disorder caused by the loss of around 26 genes. This missing chunk of chromosome leaves people with a distinctive elfin face, a risk of heart problems, and a characteristic lack of social fear. They don’t experience the same worries or concerns that most of us face when meeting new people. And now, Andreia Santos from the University of Heidelberg has suggested that they have an even more unique trait – they seem to lack racial bias.

Typically, children start overtly gravitating towards their own ethnic groups from the tender age of three. Groups of people from all over the globe and all sorts of cultures show these biases. Even autistic children, who can have severe difficulties with social relationships, show signs of racial stereotypes. But Santos says that the Williams syndrome kids are the first group of humans devoid of such racial bias, although, as we’ll see, not everyone agrees.

Santos compared the behaviour of 20 white children with Williams syndrome, aged 7 to 16, and 20 typical white children of similar backgrounds and mental ages. To do so, she used a test called the Preschool Racial Attitude Measure (PRAM-II), which is designed to tease out traces of gender or racial biases in young children.

Santos suggests that children with Williams syndrome don’t develop the same biases that their peers do, because they don’t experience social fear. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, who led the study, says, “There are hyper-social, very empathetic, very friendly, and do not get danger signals.” And because they’ll freely interact with anyone, they are less likely to cultivate a preference for people of their own ethnic groups. Alternatively, it could be that because they don’t fall prey to stereotypes, they’re more likely to socialise with everyone.

Santos is quick to rule out alternative explanations for this result. Some of the children with Williams syndrome were more intelligent or mentally advanced than the others, but they behaved in the same way. Nor could it be that they suffered from a general inability to assess people’s features, for both groups of children showed a bias towards their own gender. Fist tap Dale.