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Professor finds that in shirts, as well as skin, color matters

November 23, 1998 By Brian Mattmiller
Rebecca Bigler
Rebecca Bigler

Prejudice strikes most people as a learned behavior, but a study of grade school kids exposes prejudice as a much cagier beast, waiting to rear its head at the slightest provocation.

Rebecca Bigler, a visiting psychology professor at UW–Madison, has used the idyllic setting of a summer-school classroom in St. Cloud, Minn., to study fundamental questions about bias. Through the subtle prompts of a controlled study, Bigler measures whether children will become biased about something seemingly trivial: the colors of their assigned T-shirts.

“We have this view that you have to teach children to be biased,” she says. “This research shows that they’ll do it even if you don’t teach them.”

Bigler’s work begins with a six-week, half-day summer program for elementary school children sponsored by St. Cloud State University. It looks like any other summer school, except kids in each class are randomly assigned one of two different colors of T-shirt — their “work shirt” for the next six weeks.

In a control classroom, teachers ignore the blue and yellow shirts. But in another classroom, they make extensive use of the shirt colors to organize their class, from seating charts to special events, and frequently mention color groups when addressing students. But they do not favor one group over another or promote any competition between colors.

In tests done after the summer session, Bigler compared differences between the two classes. She found that kids in the experimental class consistently assigned more positive traits to their “color group” than to those wearing another color. They also saw far less variation among individuals in their group than did the control class.

And overall, kids from the experimental classes were more likely to say that “all” of the children of their shirt color had positive traits and that “none” had negative traits than were kids from the control group.

This happened, Bigler says, without teachers ever suggesting any value differences between the two color groups. But the mere existence of this visible difference in the class, coupled with a teacher making use of that difference, set the wheels of bias in motion.

“Kids started to think the blue was different from the yellow,” Bigler says. “What comes very quickly after that is, ‘the blues are better than the yellows.'”

Adds Bigler: “What we say to kids about some of these organizational things is, if the adult world is calling attention to them, there must be something important about them.”

Bigler has done other variations on her classroom study, including one that organized rooms by gender. That study found children in the “gender rooms” more likely to rate occupations as appropriate for “only men” or “only women” and were more extreme about their perception of gender traits within their group.

A classroom study this past summer dealt with a more potent dynamic, that of majority and minority. In the experimental class, most of the class was given one color shirt, and only two students with a different color. In wrap-up interviews with the kids, Bigler says those in minority shirts frequently said they were unhappy and wanted to change shirt colors. The two kids in the same- colored shirts also became friends at an almost clockwork rate.

Bigler says this should not suggest any fatalism about bias. Instead, she says parents and teachers need to be more diligent in talking about the differences children see, and more careful about how they organize activities. Teachers should think twice about organizing classrooms by gender, she says.

At the end of each summer session, the researchers explain to the kids the underlying point of the T-shirts. “We always try to link it to the greater lesson, something they could use for the rest of their lives,” she says. “People who have been through some sort of prejudice will understand how tough it can be.”

Tags: research