The development of race-based judgments across the lifespan
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In my dissertation, I broadly investigate social essentialism across three studies. More specifically, I examined three particular types of essentialist beliefs: stability, strict boundary, and homogeneity beliefs. In the first two studies, I explored the mechanisms through which children and adults come to understand race as a stable construct. A third study built upon this work to inform the development of interventions designed to enhance cognitive flexibility and ultimately reduce intergroup conflict. In Study 1, I looked at children’s stability beliefs and how they differed based on a child’s age and racial background (monoracial Black versus biracial Black). This concept has been understudied among children of color in present day society, resulting in outdated and disjointed research. Results from Study 1 indicated that the development of race essentialism looked differently for monoracial Black and biracial Black children until age 7 at which point the two groups looked similar. Subsequently, I was interested in building upon Study 1 and examining stability beliefs at the other end of the lifespan to consider adults’ race essentialism. Existing research links essentialism with stereotyping and discrimination among adults, warranting a more nuanced understanding of its development and maintenance over time. More specifically, in Study 2, I investigated how levels of race essentialism varied based upon demographic variables. Lastly, in Study 3, I examined children’s sensitivity to information presented on a continuum as opposed to categorically and the impact such framing had on their similarity judgments and inferences about behavior. Children of color from low-income backgrounds who received the continuum framing were able to perceive greater variability within members of the same group and greater similarity between members of different groups, corroborating previous work with 4-year-old middle- to upper middle-income children. Lastly, the final chapter of this dissertation addresses the implications of these findings for the field of education as well as clinical practice. Taken together, these results have the potential to inform classroom teachers, caregivers, and clinicians about the importance of encouraging the development of cognitive flexibility, especially in the context of social categories.