Transparent versus opaque explanations for social groups and the development of intergroup attitudes and behaviors
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Most social groups exist not by reason of some universally acknowledged, biologically based, and inherent existence of living "kinds," but are instead constructed (Bem, 1983; Smedley & Smedley, 2005; Whitehouse, 2011); they are the product of evolved psychological biases and widely shared cultural beliefs and practices. The raison d'être for particular social groups is not, however, always readily apparent. This is likely to be especially true for children, in part because the instantiation of many social groups goes unexplained by adults. Thus social groups can be construed as lying along a spectrum from well defined and explained, referred to here as "transparent," to poorly defined and explained, referred to here as "opaque." The degree to which children view particular social groups as causally transparent versus opaque may have important consequences for the formation of intergroup attitudes. Specifically, I sought to test the hypothesis, generated from an integration of the developmental literatures on intergroup attitudes, essentialist thought, and causal reasoning, that children who are members of a social group whose existence (i.e., origin and purpose) is causally opaque show higher levels of ingroup biased attitudes and behavior than children who are members of a social group whose existence is causally transparent. Children (N = 72; 41 girls; 6 to 12 years; M = 8.75; from the Midwestern U.S.) were given a measure of spatial reasoning and randomly assigned to one of two novel groups (denoted by colored t-shirts). In three classrooms, children were told that assignments to color groups were based on styles of spatial problem solving (transparent condition); in three other classrooms, children were told nothing about the basis for grouping (opaque condition). After 6 weeks, children completed measures of intergroup attitudes. Results indicated that children's intergroup attitudes were unaffected by presence versus absence of a specific, narrow explanation for social categorization; overall, children developed ingroup biased attitudes.