Williams syndrome children show no racial stereotypes or social fear

By Ed Yong | April 12, 2010 12:10 pm

People with Williams syndrome are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. They are incredibly sociable, almost unnervingly so, and they approach strangers with the openness that most people reserve for close friends.

Their sociable streak is the result of a genetic disorder caused by the loss of around 26 genes. This missing chunk of chromosome leaves people with a distinctive elfin face, a risk of heart problems, and a characteristic lack of social fear. They don’t experience the same worries or concerns that most of us face when meeting new people. And now, Andreia Santos from the University of Heidelberg has suggested that they have an even more unique trait – they seem to lack racial bias.

Typically, children start overtly gravitating towards their own ethnic groups from the tender age of three. Groups of people from all over the globe and all sorts of cultures show these biases. Even autistic children, who can have severe difficulties with social relationships, show signs of racial stereotypes. But Santos says that the Williams syndrome kids are the first group of humans devoid of such racial bias, although, as we’ll see, not everyone agrees.

Santos compared the behaviour of 20 white children with Williams syndrome, aged 7 to 16, and 20 typical white children of similar backgrounds and mental ages. To do so, she used a test called the Preschool Racial Attitude Measure (PRAM-II), which is designed to tease out traces of gender or racial biases in young children.


PRAM-II consists of a picture book where every page includes a pair of people of different genders or skin types. The researcher tells a selection of stories to accompany the images and the children have to point to the person whom they think the story is about. As they hear positive or negative adjectives, they reveal any underlying racial bias if they point to light-skinned or dark-skinned people, or men or women, more frequently.

The typical children showed a strong tendency to view light-skinned people well and dark-skinned people poorly. Out of their responses, 83% were consistent with a pro-white bias. In contrast, the children with Williams syndrome only showed such responses 64% of the time, which wasn’t significantly different from chance.

Williams_syndromeSantos suggests that children with Williams syndrome don’t develop the same biases that their peers do, because they don’t experience social fear. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, who led the study, says, “There are hyper-social, very empathetic, very friendly, and do not get danger signals.” And because they’ll freely interact with anyone, they are less likely to cultivate a preference for people of their own ethnic groups. Alternatively, it could be that because they don’t fall prey to stereotypes, they’re more likely to socialise with everyone.

Santos is quick to rule out alternative explanations for this result. Some of the children with Williams syndrome were more intelligent or mentally advanced than the others, but they behaved in the same way. Nor could it be that they suffered from a general inability to assess people’s features, for both groups of children showed a bias towards their own gender.

But not everyone is convinced. Aliya Saperstein from the University of Oregon praised the study’s “clever research design” and said that it shows the Williams Syndrome children are clearly less biased than normal ones. That is interesting in itself, but Saperstein is sceptical that they lack racial bias entirely. In the PRAM-II test, Santos claims that children without any biases should make pro-white responses half of the time, but she showed that the Williams syndrome children did so 64% of the time. This wasn’t significantly different from a chance result but the estimate was based on a very small sample size. Given larger numbers, those extra fourteen percentage points might indicate an important difference.

Robert Livingston from Northwestern University agrees. He says, “I think that it’s problematic to make strong conclusions on the basis of null findings, particularly with a sample as small as 20 WS children.”

It’s also worth noting that the PRAM-II test doesn’t give children the option of a truly unbiased response. They can’t say that the story could fit either image equally – they can only give fewer pro-white answers. As Saperstein says, “The results don’t demonstrate or prove an absence of bias. And like all similar tests, the study may tap partly into one’s knowledge of social stereotypes not just one’s personal biases.”

Livingston also notes that when we’re talking about racial bias, there is a difference between stereotypes, which are based on our beliefs, and prejudices, which are based on our feelings and evaluations of other people. The Williams Syndrome children may not show prejudice, but Livingston says, “Very few if any people who do not show stereotypes.”

Regardless of whether the Williams Syndrome children lack racial bias altogether, it’s clear that they aren’t affected by it to the same extent as normal children. Santos’s results also suggest that racial and gender biases have different origins. The former is borne at least partly out of social fear while the latter has different roots.

The link between social fear and racial stereotypes fits with the results of previous brain-scanning studies. In people with Williams syndrome, the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotional memories, is far less reactive to threatening social situations. The connections between the amygdala and the fusiform face area, which is specialised for recognising faces, are also unusually weak.

The same areas might play a role in understanding information about people’s race: the fusiform face area tends to be more active when we look at people from the same ethnic group; and one study found that the amygdala is more active when both white and black people look at black faces. This will, of course, need to be tested in more experiments.

Reference: Current Biology; citation unavailable at time of writing

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Comments (17)

  1. Sam W

    Really intresting study, I look foreward to reading the actual paper! It’d be interesting to see if lack of racial bias is the cause of consequence of lack of social fears – I suspect it’s the cause as social fears seem more complex than racial bias (as mentioned in the stereotypes arguement).
    I agree that the sample size is very small though! What I don’t understand about the PRAM-II test is, are the pictures of the same people (same clothes/build/age/gender) with the only difference being race or are there different people of different race? It seems like there’s a lot of variables to consider …

  2. dearieme

    I can see that “bias” is being used to mean a sort of community-mindedness – favouring their own tribe, as it were. But I don’t understand Livingston’s “stereotypes, which are based on our beliefs, and prejudices, which are based on our feelings and evaluations of other people”. Aren’t someone’s beliefs often based on their feelings and evaluations? In which case, stereotypes are based on prejudices. On the other hand, the word “prejudice” carries – or once carried – the implication of pre-judging. So, to be “prejudiced” against a black man, say, was to assume that he had certain characteristics before you had met him and formed an impression of him as an individual. Is that what’s meant here? But if so, stereotypes are, usually, the basis of prejudice. So, are stereotypes based on prejudices, or prejudices on stereotypes?

    I read again “prejudices, which are based on our feelings and evaluations of other people” and wonder: “other” than whom? “Other” than the person being judged, or “other” that the person doing the judging? That passage all seems a bit of a muddle to me. Perhaps there are arcane technical meanings of “stereotype” and “prejudice”?

  3. Sfwan

    Alternative interpretation:… people with William Syndrome MAY not understand the story told to them. Basically; If you don’t feel the negativeness of the story, then it is not a bias… no matter the stereotype. -The story was told to incur negativity and positivity, but how do we sure that William syndrome people do ‘feel’ negative or positive about the story???

    Bias is more like… a subconscious feeling than logical. In bias; you may (subconsciously) associate certain behaviour with certain people. -You may ‘feel’ someone is more likely to have certain attribute, even when you KNOW that/this individual is more likely to NOT have such attributes.

  4. Andy

    Can you link to a study that shows the presence of racial stereotypes in autistic children? Sounds interesting.

  5. re: social fears. i wonder if there’s a sex difference in racial bias, since most people agree than men are more socially retarded than women. i’ve reported that there is now a robust trend in several studies that women in the united states are more averse to interracial relationships than men (in particular, white women).

  6. ARJ

    I’ve long been fascinated by Williams’ children and once had an idea for a novel for someone to write, in which scientists discover that the original normal human beings on Earth all carried Williams’ genetics, but they were overtaken by a mutant, less-social strain which then became us! (a difficult idea to pull off scientifically, but one I still kinda like!)

  7. James

    So many social disorders in this world. Does this mean if I act differently towards strangers, I have some sort of a disorder?
    This bothers me

  8. James – people with Williams Syndrome aren’t just “normal people who are more social”. The condition also comes with a host of other traits, many of which aren’t very pleasant, which is why it is justifiably described as a genetic disorder. This isn’t a case of society judging people who are different – it’s a medical issue.

  9. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    @ARJ: I’m thinking it’s the other way around, that civilized society has enabled Williams mutations to survive and propagate..

  10. Reow

    So, just to get this straight… people without racial bias know white people are twice as likely (64% to 36%) to be good as black people? I think you’ve proved something a bit more important than lack-of-social bias. Can someone hand Santos his hood please?

  11. @Sam W: The test is configured to be as ambiguous as possible. For example, if shown a picture of two girls playing with a ball, it will be the same girl on both sides of the card, but one is colored differently than the other.

    @dearieme Here’s the main difference between the two: prejudice applies value, stereotype does not. To expand on that slightly; prejudice is a preconceived judgment or opinion, implying value of some kind, whereas a stereotype is just a simplified mental image. While someone’s prejudice can be based on a stereotype, it is only because that person has applied value to that stereotype.

  12. Craig H

    My son with Williams Syndome not only seems open to people of different races, but loves the different accents, styles and languages. Whenever he hears someone speak in a different language, he politely, yet bluntly asks them where they are from, what language they speak and really any other question he wants. He’ll get them to say different words in their language, most importantly how to say peanut butter.

    One day we had a black kid at the door selling magazines explaining how he’s trying to clean up his life, get off of drugs etc. As I start wishing him luck, but saying no thanks to the magazines my son comes from behind, making a Y out of his thumb and pinky saying “Yo Yo Yo What it is my man” My first reaction was to cringe, thinking he just insulted this guy, but the kid says back “Hey my little Homie” and they carry on.

    So now I’m afraid my son will think all black people talk that way. About a week later we’re standing behind a black man as we we’re picking up pizza. All of a sudden my son taps his shoulder and says “Hey mon” The guy turns around and in fact has a Jamaican accent and they have a whole Jamaican conversation. Afterrward I asked him how he knew the guy was Jamaican, but he couldn’t tell me.

  13. gillt

    The Sookie Stackhouse Syndrome?

  14. dearieme

    @Mike: thanks.

  15. Glenn C.

    Considering Craig’s story, is it possible that people with WS have a more individualized focus towards specific people? Maybe they notice detailed traits about a person immediately and take those factors into consideration before starting a conversation. Maybe the weak connection between the amygdala and the fusiform face area puts people with WS in a place to develop a personality trait which causes them to take a more individualistic approach towards people. Possibly making multiple assumptions based on small details and using that combined information to approach their conversational partners in a more proper manner.

    I’m not well versed on this subject so please correct any inconsistencies I may have in my thoughts.

  16. Great to read some thoughtful interaction to a study that has been far too overblown (in my opinion) by the press. Thanks for this.

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