Children's Decision-Making about Social Relationships: The Impact of Similarity, Racial Attitudes, and Intergroup Contact

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Cross-race friendships are a significant factor in the reduction of prejudice. The frequency of cross-race friendships is low throughout childhood and further declines with age. Three factors proposed to influence children’s decision-making about cross-race friendships were investigated: racial attitudes, perceptions of similarity, and intergroup contact. Participants were 138 European American first- and fourth-graders who attended ethnically homogeneous schools. Three assessments were administered. The Ambiguous Situations Task assessed implicit bias in children’s interpretations of ambiguous interracial encounters. The Similarity Task assessed children’s perceptions of similarity between peer dyads that varied by race and by whether or not they shared activity interests. The Intergroup Contact Assessment was administered to measure the amount of contact participants experienced with members of racial and ethnic groups other than their own. Results of the Ambiguous Situations Task were that children interpreted the ambiguous situations involving a Black transgressor as more negative than the situations involving a White transgressor. Moreover, the characters were evaluated as less likely to be friends in the situations involving a Black transgressor than in those involving a White transgressor. The findings from the Similarity Task were that children focused on shared interests to a greater extent than shared race in judgments of similarity and friendship potential. Evidence of the outgroup homogeneity effect was found, however. European American participants judged same-race Black dyads as more similar than same-race White dyads. Overall, participants reported low amounts of intergroup contact. Higher intergroup contact scores were related to perceptions of greater between-race similarity and to perceptions of less same-race similarity. In sum, the factors investigated had varying degrees of influence on decision-making about cross-race friendship. The findings point to the need for a multi-method assessment of racial attitudes in children, as well as to further investigation of the impact of intergroup contact.