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.