Kid towers over another
Equality, diversity and inclusion, Government and politics, Race, ethnicity and culture

Fictional power imbalances help children grasp systemic injustices

Recent study shows learning that fictional high-status groups allocated themselves power reduces children’s bias towards them, and motivates equitable response to low-status groups

18 October 2023

By Emily Reynolds

Research suggests that children readily accept and perpetuate group inequalities from a young age, quickly becoming active participants in their maintenance. 

In adults that buy into systematic inequalities, education on policies, procedures, or political discourses upholding said injustices has been shown to encourage people to fight against them, as well as predict lower levels of prejudice towards low-status groups. For kids, however, wading into the mechanics of the system is typically beyond their capabilities and interest, potentially leaving blossoming unjust beliefs unchallenged.

However, new research described in PNAS reveals that there are effective ways to help children learn about power systems and the inequalities they cause, and that certain types of explanation increase their desire to rectify injustices.

Participants were 206 children aged between five and ten years old, recruited via a research platform. First, the children were introduced to two characters: one that was part of the ‘Toogit’ group, and the other that was part of the ‘Flurp’ group, both differentiated by different coloured clothing. The characters were described as living in the same town, but having very different lifestyles. The Toogit character lived a high-status life, whereas the Flurp character lived a low-status, low-paid life. 

The participants were then placed into one of three conditions. One group of children read that the Toogits had allocated themselves high status, creating rules that benefitted them many years ago. In the third-party power condition, children read that a third party had bestowed the Toogits with their power and status. And in a control condition, children simply read about the Toogits' power without an explanation. 

Next, the children were asked about the social mobility of the Flurps. They answered questions about whether they felt the Flurp could grow up and live in a high-status house, how much they liked the high- and low-status characters, and on whether it was fair or not fair that some characters had a lot, while others had a little. 

Children who read that the high-status Toogits had given themselves power were more likely to show positive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to towards the low-status Flurps than those in the other two conditions. They were also less likely to show bias towards the high-status group, and to see the status hierarchy to be more unfair. They also seemed to understand inequality, predicting that low-status children would be given fewer sweets. 

The team also asked the children questions about the societal treatment of the different groups. They were told that a local school had six extra sweets to hand out, and asked them to predict whether the sweets would be allocated preferentially to the high-status child, the low-status child, or equally. Finally, they were asked to allocate the sweets, giving preference to either the high-status child or low-status child or distributing them equally. 

Reflective of their previous sentiments, children who read that Toogits had given themselves high status allocated more resources to the low-status group in comparison to other conditions. Those in the third party power condition, however, were more likely to allocate more sweets to the high-status group.

Overall, the results suggest that explanations of inequality that position the high-status group as having created rules that benefit them are directly related to children’s beliefs about inequality and, importantly, their actions. Introducing children to fictional systemic inequality could be an accessible way for them to develop more nuanced and fair views about real-world inequality. 

The team suggests future research that could “embed” children into the experiment themselves as “members of the low- or high-status groups... rather than mere observers of it.” This, they argue, could “aid in the formation of more adaptive beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours across the lifespan” — in other words, enabling children not only to better understand structural inequality at a young age, but encouraging them to act against inequality too. 

Read the study in full: