Dr. Yarrow Dunham
Processes of Knowledge Acquisition
As a child, we might think that our main tasks are making sure we make it to the playground during the day and eat our favorite food for dinner. Perhaps, even ensuring that we spend enough time playing with our parents, caregivers, or siblings. What we don’t realize during that time is that we are subconsciously working on a much more significant and important project. One that’ll affect the way in which we see the world for the rest of our lives. That is, the task of meaning making of our social world. Dr. Yarrow Dunham, a Harvard-trained, Yale-tenured Social Cognitive Developmental psychologist, has been investigating the processes in which developing children and cognitively mature adults make meaning out of their social environments. More specifically, he’s exploring how we make meaning out of the groups in which we are, or aren’t, a part of. Whether these thoughts are conscious, children and adults are asking themselves “who am I?”, “what groups do I belong to?”, and “what does it mean to belong to this group and not that group?”
"One fundamental task children have in the world is to figure out how their society divides people up and where they fall within those divisions. "
Some of the biggest questions that he’s been interested in is understanding what the simplest, or even dumbest, kinds of groups kids or adults might care about belonging to. By putting people into randomly assigned groups they have no previous experience with, we see the phenomenon that shows that people still prefer their in-group vs out-group. What’s even more fascinating is that young children, at least as young as three and possibly as young as 18 months, show signs of preferring members of their own group within these random and minimal conditions. What this shows is that we have an innate tendency to want to find our place within a group. It seems as though a biological adaptation is being activated here. As a species, humans are socially focused creatures. We yearn to be a part of a community or group that resonates with our developing or established identity. However, to take this notion a step further, how do we incorporate the concept of fairness between groups?
From general research, for children, there seems to be a strong impulse to want to think that the world is fair and just right. But if the world is fair, then why are some people poor and others rich? Do they think it’s something having to do with the people themselves? Did the poor people bring it upon themselves? Is this one genesis of bias? Dr. Dunham shares his insight on these questions and much more. Listen to our conversation below.
(Recorded June 2021.)
Another area that Dr. Dunham’s lab has been focusing on is how children think about economic inequality. For example, children look around different individuals in the world, and they realize that some people clearly have a lot more than others. How do they justify or explain why some people are rich and some are poor? These answers are still under investigation; however, what seems to be a logical explanation is that if you don’t present children with other kinds of information, they tend to favor what you might call an internal or intrinsic explanation.