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Studying human bias

Researchers in British Columbia study thousands of people drawn from the general public
October 16, 2012

In the hours leading up to his interview for a position at The University of British Columbia (UBC), Andrew Baron wasn’t pacing the halls or reviewing his resume. Instead, the PhD student in psychology was racing around Vancouver in a taxi scouting locations for what he hoped would become his new lab.

As a student at Harvard University, Baron wanted to study the way children think and remember by accessing research subjects who represented the general public.

He got the job in January 2010, and by June had established Canada’s first public child psychology laboratory at Science World, a popular centre in Vancouver.

The Living Lab, as it is known, draws subjects from Science World’s 500,000 annual visitors. Since opening, researchers have conducted experiments with 18,000 kids to investigate Baron’s primary interest: how children form biases and prejudices.

“We’re trying to understand what about our psychology leads children to develop prejudices towards people who are similar or different,” says Baron, “and how we can foster greater tolerance among children.”

Researchers at UBC roam the centre, recruiting kids between the ages of one and 18 — with their consenting parents in tow — to take part in short experiments in the lab.

One experiment assigns two-and three-year-olds to teams made up of puppets controlled by researchers. The researchers closely examine the kids’ behaviour towards opposing teams of puppets, with which the kids are asked to either compete or cooperate. So far, Baron has been surprised to see that kids within these early years often display biases towards those who are different, countering his expectation that this occurs later in life.

The research will identify factors that lead kids to become more or less tolerant of those around them. The work will ultimately be transferred to parents, policy makers and teachers.

Baron is taking the Living Lab approach into his community. Last year, he began a research program at a number of elementary schools in the Vancouver area that explores ways to change the stereotype that boys are better than girls at science so it doesn’t continue to impede girls in the classroom.

The program will continue this year. “It is a great opportunity for the public to observe how such science is practiced,” he says.

(Image credit: Science world)