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The Problem With Diverse Role Models

In 1963, psychologists convinced an army of four-year-olds to beat the living crap out of a Bobo Doll. Each preschooler watched an adult pummel a large, inflatable doll with impunity. The adults sat on the doll and punched it in the nose. They lifted it over their heads and brained it with a mallet. They even verbally abused it. Then they left each child alone in a room full of mallets and Bobo Dolls.

Naturally, the four-year-olds demolished their respective Bobos. But the researchers were surprised to find that boys who had watched adult men flip out on their Bobo Dolls were more likely to mimic precise behaviors, shouting the same phrases (“Sock him in the nose!”) and making generous use of their mallets. The same was true of girls who had watched women. The researchers behind the melee concluded that all children mimic grownups, but that children are more likely to closely emulate adults who share their genders, or at least look like them.

Since then, psychologists have repeatedly confirmed that children prefer to imitate adults who resemble them, emulating same-sex role models and identifying best with professors of the same sex. Hell, even three-month-olds seem to prefer own-race faces and studies have shown that toddlers are less wary of strangers who share their ethnicities. But what does all this mean for parents? Is the understandable and admirable impulse to expose your kids to diverse role models actually counterproductive? On the other hand, is ghettoizing your kids so they only experience one kind of role model really wise? And, crucially, does a child’s preference for same-sex role models mean that daughters are less likely to see their dads as heroes?

babies playing together

The existing evidence is far too scant to provide a definitive answer to any of these questions. But experts say there are real costs to both championing and limiting role model diversity. There’s no easy conclusion—just a network of questions that lead inexorably into the next question.

Take one recent study, for instance. Researchers found that women took longer to react to male figures than female figures in street signs, hesitating for a matter of seconds that could, in theory, spell the difference between life and death. The solution was simple: Present women with street signs that feature female figures, hastening their response times. In this case, the most practical solution was to leverage our unconscious biases. And it worked! But could that same strategy be replicated effectively in the context of more complex behaviors and attitudes?

Farid Kandil, a psychologist at the University of Munster in Germany and coauthor on the street sign study, says that might be possible within a developmental window that exists while kids mimic own-gender models simply because of familiarity. “In our first years, when it comes to role models, we identify with our parents and siblings,” Kandil says, adding that after that period passes, children become more likely to follow those that reflect their expanding peer groups.

Our urge to emulate people who look like us, then, exists in a sort of feedback loop. At school, kids are immediately shunted into same-gender spaces that reinforce the idea that not only people who look like us but also people who share our gender are to be trusted and followed. “It all has to do with our need to feel near to those we love and whom we depend on,” Kandil says.

But that doesn’t explain children’s ingrained preference for members of their own race. Elizabeth Losin, a psychology professor at the University of Miami who has studied the neurologic underpinnings of our preference for similar peers, says studies have raised the possibility that children imitate own-gender and own-ethnicity adults because they assume their genders and ethnicities carry higher social status than others. In that case, one is tempted to conclude that children aren’t actually seeking to emulate people like them—children are ignoring people unlike them. It’s a disconcerting idea, that seems to nod in the direction of reflexive racism.

But our preference for less diverse role models may run deeper than that. When Losin studied how adult brains respond to imitating same-gender versus opposite-gender role models, she found that “strikingly, the only difference was that activity in several brain regions that have been associated with reward and reinforcement learning—ventral and dorsal striatum, orbitofrontal cortex, and amygdala—was greater while imitating own-gender models.” Although Losin’s sample size for that study was small (19 participants) her findings raised the possibility that ancient regions of our brains reward us for, specifically, mimicking same-gender role models.

“That pattern of activity was fairly robust,” she says.We found that higher activity in response to own-gender compared to other-gender models was only present when participants were imitating those models, not when they were just looking at still pictures of them.”

Whether thanks to our upbringing or our neurological hardwiring, then, we’re likely predisposed to choosing role models that match our own genders and ethnicities. Which may be bad news for dads who want their daughters to idolize them, and perhaps even worse news for parents of interracial children. But what about other, non-physical attributes? In a separate study, Losin examined how the brain reacts when we mimic people who look and sound nothing like us, but closely match our political ideologies—a sort of stand-in for role models who think like us, even if they don’t look like us. Interestingly, she did not observe increased activity in the reward and centers of the brain when participants mimicked their political ideological counterparts.

“One possible explanation is that gender is a social category that has been meaningful throughout our evolutionary history,” Losin says. “Whereas being surrounded by individuals from different cultural groups or ancestry is a relatively recent phenomenon in evolutionary time.”

In other words, women have been around women long enough to have evolved the machinery to mentally reward themselves for mimicking other women, but climate deniers have not yet evolved the machinery to mentally reward themselves for hanging out with fellow skeptics.

Kandil suspects that there may be a psychosocial explanation for why we pursue role models who look like us over those who share our ideologies. “With increasing age, we identify and play with children of our own gender,” he says. “Later, political and philosophical values become more important. With increasing time and experience, other issues like religion and philosophy. These ideas are usually adapted over time.” That is, our early childhood experiences tend to be segregated by gender and race—we play with children of our own gender and we go home to families that usually share our ethnic characteristics. These formative experiences may influence our later decisions to emulate people who look like us. But it isn’t until much later in life that we even discover ideologies, let alone ideologies that differ from our own, and by then we’re far less vulnerable to the biases that we can more easily develop as young children.

There is, however, some evidence that children don’t actually emulate people who look like them—they emulate people who look like they wish they did. “Biases related to demographics have been found in favor of high status groups, even when the imitator is not a member of those groups,” Losin says, citing several studies that have shown that both white and black children want to emulate wealthy, white adults. In other words, the mimicry observed in these studies is more complicated (and perhaps less innocent) than once thought. Rather than observing that kids tend to follow familiar role models, it could be that they tend associate certain physical characteristics with success (ie, white skin) due to societal inequalities, and mimic accordingly.

Dads, then, can breathe a sigh of relief. Whether your kids look like you or not, these studies suggest, as long as they associate your race and gender with success, they’re likely to dress up like you and want to be you one day. At the same time, these studies provide at least one good reason not to proactively assign children same-gender and same-race role models—it probably wouldn’t work, unless the children already associate their gender and race with success. If anything, the more effective approach to tackling racism or sexism is by pushing kids towards role models that are ideologically similar to themselves, but look nothing like them.

Besides, there are also very good reasons not to limit kids to teachers and coaches that look like them. Studies have shown again and again (and again) that both minority and non-minority kids benefit from diverse social environments. Whatever gain there may be from pushing kids toward look-alike role models that they’re socially or neurologically tuned to follow, would likely be minimal compared to the substantial loss of raising children in a demographic cloister.

And most of this discussion is theoretical anyway. The research is mostly preliminary and, even if we did know what the ideal role models looked like, it’s not like dads could force their kids to embrace them. “I don’t think that you can actually provide anyone with a role model,” Kandil says, adding that “there is no direct advice to offer. This is basic research…children should look out for a model that guides them on their next steps. I think that the wish to be near him or her is essential. So, the model needs at least to be authentic.”

Losin, on the other hand, sees some potential gain in crafting scientifically perfect role models for kids, because studies “suggest that social learning via imitation is a particularly important social learning strategy early in development before sophisticated language skills are present.” At the same time, she agrees that the existing studies are poor fodder for parenting advice.I don’t think my studies, or even a combination of studies available in the literature, have yielded enough evidence to suggest that parents should pursue any particular parenting strategies.”

But for those of us looking for an edge in influencing our children and students, Losin does offer some broad suggestions. In her study of political ideology and mimicry, she found that participants who learned more about how they were in fact similar to their more diverse role models often diminished the negative effects of their racial or gender differences. Her findings suggested that, the more common ground between a mentor and a protege, the better. For dads, this means really talking to your kids—especially if they don’t look like you.

“A useful take-home message for parents would be that there are many different ways to establish common ground between children and their teachers or other role models,” Losin says. “Perhaps having some kind of feeling of common ground or similarity may facilitate attention or learning. But I definitely don’t think it has to be based on a demographic category.”