Research Topic

Learning in social context: the nature and profit of living in groups for development

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One of the distinctive features of the human race is its unique sociality. Research has shown that people are ready to use a variety of cues to draw distinctions between „us” and „them”. Theories of social categorization share common assumptions: in-group bias may benefit an individual as it helps them to ...

One of the distinctive features of the human race is its unique sociality. Research has shown that people are ready to use a variety of cues to draw distinctions between „us” and „them”. Theories of social categorization share common assumptions: in-group bias may benefit an individual as it helps them to boost their own self-esteem or provides an ideological ground for oppressing others.

However, researchers in cognitive science have suggested that the importance of such motives may have been overrated. While it is a widely accepted notion that the human mind has evolved a special domain to form and represent social categories, the advantages this capacity may provide is under debate. For example, it has been suggested that in the ancient environment a module dedicated to processing social kinds may have served to help track coalitions. Others propose that social categorization helps people to make sense of the complexly organized structures of human societies.

Our understanding of the function and mechanism of such a module – “naïve sociology” – can benefit greatly from studies with children. Adults’ representations of social categories are in great part reflections of socialized ideas and values, which may obscure the fundamental functions of such a module. To assess its ontogeny and origin we may turn to the study of infants and children.

Indeed, past research in developmental psychology has already provided insight into children’s representations of the social world. It has been shown that infants as young as only a few months of age categorize on the basis of gender and age. They even do so for language (and accent, in particular), which has been identified as a reliable indicator of group-membership for infants, even newborns. While there is emergent evidence that already infants form ‘social categories’, little is known about the fact whether infants’ social categories reflect an “in-group” preference per se, or a preference for people sharing traits with those in their environment. What is the main role of the ability to categorize social cues in the environment for the developing mind? What is the relative importance of social category membership in children's judgments about fellow humans? To what degree and in what domains does infants’ and older children’s behavior differ towards in-group and out-group members?

Furthermore, although even infants seem to differentiate others based on the language they speak, it is not until 5 years of age that race gains such significance in governing children’s behavior towards other humans. Thus, does language play a specific role for social categorization? Are there other cues besides language that children attend to when forming representations of social categories early in childhood?

How findings in developmental psychology can be integrated into or alter the social psychological literature on stereotyping? Are there undiscovered processes taking place in economic decision-making? How does multiculturalism affect these processes?

The aim of this research topic is to further explore these questions and clear the ambiguity concerning the connection between the need and reliance on social categorization – naïve sociology – and children’s learning processes.


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