Our Research

The overarching goal of the DEML Lab is to conduct research geared towards promoting social equity and preempting the formation of social biases during childhood. To achieve these goals, our projects span a range of interrelated areas.

Developing Conceptions of Equity and Fairness

We conduct research examining how children’s conceptions of fairness develop by examining how they weigh equity, equality, merit, and need when evaluating and acting in social contexts. For example, in one study, we presented children with stories about poor and wealthy people and asked them how they thought new resources should be allocated (Rizzo & Killen, 2016). We found that younger children (3-4 years) prioritized strict-equality (giving the same number of resources to poor and wealthy people), but that older children (5-8 years) gave more to a poor than wealthy person, suggesting a developing concern for equity over equality. In another study (Rizzo et al., 2016), we presented children with a version of Aesop’s “Grasshopper and the Ant” fable where one person works hard and the other person does not. We then told children that they could give out both luxury (i.e., fun to have but not needed to survive; candy, stickers, toys) and necessary (i.e., needed to survive; food, medicine, water) resources. Younger children (3-5 years) gave both luxury and necessary resources equally, but older children (6-8 years) differentiated between the resources; they gave more luxury resources to the hardworking character and gave necessary resources equally to both. When we asked them why, children said that people who work hard should be able to keep what they work for, but that no one should go hungry.

Preempting Social Biases

We study ways to preempt the emergence of social biases by identifying when and how social biases first emerge during early childhood. By the time they’re 3-years-old, children already demonstrate a range of biases including gender, racial, and linguistic biases, and will even form biases about what color t-shirt someone is wearing in some contexts. The focus of our research in this area is figuring out why.

In a recent longitudinal study on the emergence of racial biases (Rizzo et al., 2021), we found that children’s normative beliefs about interracial friendships (i.e., who children thought their friends would want to play with and who their parents would want them to play with) predicted children’s own desire to form cross-race friendships. We also found that children’s explanatory beliefs about racial inequalities (i.e., the reasons children attribute to racial inequalities) predicted the development of racial biases over a six-month period. We followed up on these results using an online sample of 646 children from across the country and found that children’s exposure to racial inequalities in their daily lives also played an important role in the emergence of racial bias (Rizzo et al., in press).

We are also committed to ensuring that our research has a real-world impact. In two recent studies we asked 124 parent-child dyads to sit down together to talk about issues related to race, racism, and racial inequality (Britton, Rizzo, Brenner, & Rhodes, in prep), and developed and tested a set of anti-racist parenting materials with 114 families (Rizzo, Britton, & Rhodes, in prep). We are in the process of analyzing this data and will update this section soon!

Developmental Mechanisms and Psychological Processes

To identify how conceptions of fairness and social biases develop, we also examine a range of social and social-cognitive processes.

Beliefs about Social Structures

As noted above, children’s explanatory beliefs about racial inequalities predict the emergence of racial bias. In separate lines of research, we examine how children develop beliefs about social inequalities, such as whether inequalities are caused by individual (i.e., some people work harder or are smarter than others) or structural (i.e., some people are advantaged/disadvantaged by social systems) factors and the consequences of those beliefs. Rizzo et al., (2020) found that when children were shown how different people acquired their resources, they were more likely to rectify inequalities caused by structural biases than inequalities rooted in legitimate differences in effort.

Social Status

Children develop beliefs about the world based on their experiences within it. In this line of research, we examine how children’s experiences within different social statuses shape how they think, act, and reason. In one study (Rizzo & Killen, 2018), we found that children randomly assigned to an advantaged status were less able to accurately identify others’ thoughts and emotions (see Theory of Mind section below). In a follow-up study (Rizzo, Roberts, & Rhodes, under review), we found that children randomly assigned to an advantaged group within a social hierarchy were more likely to view that hierarchy as fair, generalizable, wrong to challenge, and innately determined, and were more likely to develop and act on intergroup biases that perpetuated the social hierarchy.

Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind (ToM) refers to children’s ability to recognize that other people have their own unique mental and emotional states (“minds”) that differ from their own. We have found that children’s ToM capacities play an important role in their ability to reject social stereotypes (Mulvey, Rizzo, & Killen, 2015; Rizzo & Killen, 2018) and understand the harms caused by inequalities (Li* et al., 2018; Rizzo et al., 2020).

We have also examined racial biases in ToM. Traditional ToM research has examined children’s ToM development using primarily (or exclusively) White characters; Rooney*, Rizzo, and Rhodes (in prep) varied the race of the characters and found that non-Black children were less able to see the psychological harm caused by bullying when the victim was Black.

* denotes undergraduate mentee authorship