WILLIAMS Syndrome (WS) is a rare neurodevelopmental disorder caused by the deletion of about 28 genes from the long arm of chromosome 7. It is characterized by mild to moderate mental retardation and “elfin” facial features. Most strikingly, individuals with WS exhibit highly gregarious social behaviour: they approach strangers readily and indiscriminately, behaving as if everybody were their friend. And, according to a study published today in the journal Current Biology, they are the only known group of individuals who do not form racial stereotypes.
Most of us stereotype others implicitly and automatically – we assume that the characteristics of an individual can be generalized to the group to which they belong, whether it be race, religion, social class or some other group. One factor thought to be important in the formation of stereotypes is fear – we give preferential treatment to those perceived to be like us, while being wary of those perceived to be different. Children with WS are socially fearless. Although they perceive some people to be more approachable than others, they apparently have difficulty inhibiting their compulsion towards social interaction.They therefore provide a unique opportunity to examine the contribution of social fear to the formation of stereotypes.
Andreia Santos and her colleagues investigated racial and gender stereotyping in 20 children with WS, aged 7 to 16 years, and 20 healthy controls of about the same age. They used a revised version of Preschool Racial Attitude Measure II, a standardized method which has been shown to reliably assess childrens’ racial and gender attitudes. The test consists of a series of pictures, each of which contains two human figures and is accompanied by a brief story containing either a positive or a negative description. Each child was shown a total of 18 such pictures, and asked each time to point to the person in the picture that the accompanying story was about.
Typically, children exhibit an “in-group” bias when presented with this test – they tend to attribute positive characteristics to the figures perceived to be of the same ethnic group as themselves, and negative characteristics to the figures perceived to be different. And the children in the control group confirmed this. They showed a strong bias towards their own ethnic group, attributing positive characteristics to the figures with pinkish-tan skin and blonde hair (the “Caucasians”) more often than to those with brown skin and black hair (the “non-Caucasians”). By contrast, no racial bias was evident in the children with WS – they attributed the positive and negative characteristics equally to the Caucasian and non-Caucasian characters. Sex-role bias, however, was identical in the two two groups.
The researchers suggest that it is the absence of social fear in children with WS tha makes them less likely to form racial stereotypes. Their tendency to be hypersociable and friendly towards everyone could lead to their lack of racial bias. Conversely, their failure to stereotype others according to race could contribute to their highly sociable behaviour. On the other hand, preservation of sex-role stereotyping in WS suggests that social fear does not play a big role in this type of stereotype; it may instead occur as a result of other cognitive processes, such as social learning.
Earlier work by the same group of researchers has shown that hypersociability and lack of social fear in individuals with WS is associated with reduced activity in the amygdala in response to social threats, and to reduced interactions between the amygdala and fusiforn face area (FFA). The amygdala is well known to be involved in fear, and the FFA, as its name suggests, responds selectively to faces. These two structures, together with the prefrontal cortex, are normally thought to encode race information, and it has been shown increased FFA activation is associated with viewing same-race faces.
All of this suggests that the apparent lack of racial bias in children with WS occurs because of reduced activity in the amygdala and FFA and impaired interactions between the two, which causes the threat signal normally elicited by someone from a different social group to be diminished. This hypothesis could be investigated further, using “novel” ethnicities to which participants have not previosuly been exposed. More generally, the findings show that the neural mechanisms underlying racial and sex-role stereotypes are distinct from one another, and also that the underlying genetics are different. They also suggest that ways of minimizing social fear could be an effective way of reducing racism and other forms of prejudice.
Santos, A., et al. (2010). Absence of racial, but not gender, stereotyping in Williams syndrome children. Curr. Biol. 20. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.009.
Meyer-Lindenberg, A., et al. (2006). Neural mechanisms in Williams syndrome: a unique window to genetic influences on cognition and behaviour. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 7: 380-393 [PDF].
Mobbs, D., et al (2006). Frontostriatal Dysfunction During Response Inhibition in Williams Syndrome. Biol. Psychiatry 62: 256-261 [PDF].