Effects of Perceived Intergroup Conflict on Children’s Essentialism in Northern Ireland: Society for Research on Child Development (SRCD) Biennual Meeting

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Abstract

Research suggests that children construe certain social categories as ‘kinds’ that are biologically inherited and stable across time (Diesendruck & HaLevi, 2006; Hirschfeld, 1996; Kinzler & Dautel, 2012; Taylor, 1996). Children’s tendency toward such essentialist thinking about social categories might be universal (Hirschfeld, 1996; Rothbart & Taylor, 1992), but which specific categories become essentialized, and when, might vary within specific social and cultural contexts. In particular, evidence suggests that for adults, exposure to intergroup conflict can promote judgments of outgroup homogeneity and maintenance of group boundaries due to perceived threat (Whitehouse, et al., 2014; Corneille, et al., 2001). Northern Ireland presents a unique social context to study the influence of intergroup conflict on children’s social essentialism. Here, children are exposed to a long history of conflict between two ethno-religious groups typically known as Catholics and Protestants. The majority of Catholic and Protestant children attend segregated schools, live in segregated neighbourhoods, and even have different hobbies (Gallagher, 2004). Understanding the development of essentialist thinking about social categories, and the influence of wider society, may help understand the nature of social bias and prejudice in adulthood, and how it may be prevented. In the current study, we investigated whether children’s perceptions of intergroup conflict are related to beliefs about inherent group differences and stable group boundaries for religious (Catholic/Protestant), gender (Boys/Girls), and novel group categories (Flurps/Zazzes). As part of a larger study, these data were collected through elementary schools in interface and non-interface areas of Belfast. Ninety-five children across majority Catholic and majority Protestant primary schools in Belfast (55% male; ages 5;7 to 9;7; Mean age = 7.8 years) were read a questionnaire investigating beliefs about differences between category members, stability of category boundaries, and perception of intergroup conflict. Children’s responses factored into three distinct factors between social categories: psychological differences, physiological differences, and stability of category membership. Results revealed a significant relationship between children’s perceived conflict and their beliefs about the possibility of changing from one religion category to another (stability of category membership), but no relationship between conflict and the other two factors. The relationship between perceived conflict and stability of religious category membership was stronger in older children than younger children. Yet, there was no relationship between perceived conflict and essentialism of gender or novel group categories, suggesting perceived conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland relates only to stability of category membership of these specific religious categories. These results suggest that children, like adults in prior research, believe ethno-religious category boundaries to be less malleable when there is greater perceived intergroup conflict. Future research will investigate the directionality of this relationship, and interventions that may prevent later social bias.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017

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