A study published in Current Biology suggests that children with Williams Syndrome are not inherently racist like the rest of the population and may help experts develop interventions designed to reduce discriminatory attitudes towards minority groups.

Previous studies have shown that stereotypes are found ubiquitously in typically developing children—as early as age 3—as they are in adults, said Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the Central Institute of Mental Health, Mannheim/University of Heidelberg. Even children with autism display racial stereotypes, despite profound difficulties in daily social interaction and a general failure to show adapted social knowledge.

In their study, researchers showed children a series of vignettes with people differing in race or gender and asked the children to assign positive or negative features to those pictured. Typical children made strongly stereotypical assignments both for sex roles and for race, confirming the results of previous studies. On the other hand, children with Williams syndrome showed no evidence for racial bias.

"The unique hypersociable profile of individuals with Williams syndrome often leads them to consider that everybody in the world is their friend," Meyer-Lindenberg said. "In previous work, we have shown that processing of social threat is deficient in people with the syndrome. Based on this, we suspected that they would not show a particular preference for own-race versus other-race characters. The finding that racial stereotypes in children with Williams syndrome were completely absent was nevertheless surprising in its degree."

The children with Williams syndrome did make stereotypical sex role assignments just like normal children. That finding suggests that different forms of stereotyping arise from different brain mechanisms, the researchers say, and that those mechanisms are selectively affected in some way by the genetic alteration that causes Williams syndrome (the loss of about 26 genes on chromosome 7).

Citation: Andreia Santos, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, Christine Deruelle, 'Absence of racial, but not gender, stereotyping in Williams syndrome children', Current Biology, April 2010, 20(7); doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.009