Field of Science

Subconscious religious predjudice in children

We know that religious affiliation is one among many markers of group identity. But if you ask typical adults, they will insist that they are not prejudiced against members of other faiths. However, if you measure their subconscious reactions, you can reveal hidden biases.

In other words, adults know they are not supposed to be prejudiced, but deep down they often are.

But what about children? Larisa Heiphetz and colleagues, at Harvard University, ran a series of studies to find out.

The basic gist of these was that they showed the kids pictures and pictures of two children - one Christian, and one either Jewish or Hindu. The children were matched (same race etc), but the stories about them were tweaked either to emphasise differences or similarities).

Then they asked the kids their opinions of the two test children. They also ran something called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is a test designed to uncover subconscious prejudice.

What they found was that when the characters were presented alongside an explanation that pointed out they were different (for example, by highlighting the differences between Hinduism and Christianity, or by having the Christian child say that aspects of Judaism were silly), then the children showed a marked explicit, conscious prejudice.

That's quite different to the adults, who try to maintain they have no prejudice against other religions.

When they glossed over the differences, however, the children's explicit prejudice ebbed away. But their subconscious prejudice remained - if anything it was even higher.

What Heiphertz and colleagues conclude is that these mostly Christian children, like adults, have an implicit pro-Christian bias. Unlike adults, however, they are happy to admit to their bias, when they recognise it themselves.

What was unusual, however, was that the children did not even need to understand the differences between the characters in order to show a subconscious bias. As they say:

In cases where children are asked to choose between characters whose religions are similar and familiar, the IAT may tap preferences of which the children are unaware or which they may not yet be able to articulate.

So prejudice against other faiths is so deeply ingrained that it can have an effect even when these kids can't consciously identify any important differences between children of different faiths!
Heiphetz L, Spelke ES, & Banaji MR (2012). Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes in Children and Adults: Tests in the Domain of Religion. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 22905875

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. The thing I would put differently in this article is "christian children". Children are not naturally religious, they are indoctrinated into their parent's specific religious prejudices, because children are not allowed to question the reality of the stories they are told, especially in religious families. It's like saying, "Isn't it odd that children who grow up in english-speaking families end up speaking english?" They simply reflect the environment they are raised in.

  2. Thomas, do you feel that this is likely to be specific to religion, or do you think that this speaks more to our tribal natures?

  3. Crystal is correct. Children learn what they live. Its not just about 'religion' either. It relates to all manner of 'belief' and that also impacts on their biology, now scientifically proven.

  4. To TWF's question I would respond: is there any real difference between organized religion and base expression of "our tribal natures"? This study would suggest not.

  5. Agree with Anony: Pleistocene tribal instincts remain unchanged and are simply expressed in our modern labels, so this really isn't about religion per se.

  6. Crystal, Eliakim,

    You are technically right, of course, but I think it's quite clear in this context that "christian children" means children being raised in christian households. I don't think you can fault Tomas on using the shorthand "christian children" instead of "children who are in the process of being indoctrinated into their parent's specific religious prejudices."

  7. Arguably, these are "Christian children" since they identify - explicitly and implicitly - with the Christian faith.

    As to whether this is a phenomenon of "religion" only, well probably not. But the key issue is that these kids align subconsciously to this identity, even in the absence of explicit triggers. So it is an unusual marker of identity in that regard. It would be interesting to see if ethnicity had the same effect.

  8. I strongly suspect that the kids were not reacting negatively against kids of a different religion, but simply against kids who were different, full stop.

    I'd dearly love to see the tests run again on other differences: ethnicity, ability, looks, intelligence, hairstyles, you name it. You can prime a kid to react against anything the way they did there within the stories.


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