Children with a rare genetic disorder called Williams syndrome lack normal social fear and appear to have no racial biases, according to German and French researchers. The study is the first to report the absence of racial stereotyping in any human population, according to co-author Professor Meyer-Lindenberg from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim and the University in Heidelberg, Germany.
The researchers asked 20 children with Williams syndrome and a control group of normal-development children to describe, using one of several positive and negative prompts, brown or white-skinned children pictured engaging in daily activities. While the normal-development children viewed the children with the skin colour different from their own less favourably, children with Williams syndrome were equally likely to describe the white or black child as naughty or friendly. They displayed no racial stereotyping, which is known to evolve by the age of three at the latest in healthy individuals.
Interestingly, the study also showed that the Williams syndrome children hold gender stereotypes to the same degree as normal children. 'The fact that Williams syndrome kids think of men and women differently, but not blacks and whites, shows that sex stereotypes are not caused by social anxiety', Meyer-Lindenberg concluded. Although only white children were tested, previous research has shown that people of other skin colours and races are also more positive about their own race.
Williams syndrome arises from a genetic abnormality occurring during meiosis - when the DNA double helix divides into two strands to become the genetic material in egg and sperm. About 25 genes - out of the approximately 30,000 in the human body - are not sorted correctly and subsequently do not work properly. As a result, affected individuals have a lower IQ (intelligence quotient) because of cognitive deficits mainly in abstract thinking. But people with William syndrome are more gregarious than normal and have near-normal language skills. According to study co-author Meyer-Lindenberg: 'The unique hypersociable profile of individuals with Williams syndrome often leads them to consider that everybody in the world is their friend. They don't recognize danger in faces and [they] approach anyone'. Results of neuroscientific experiments and post-mortem research support this theory.
To get a more detailed picture of how racism and sexism are differentiated in the brain and how strong the genetic components are, Meyer-Lindenberg and colleagues are now using brain imaging. Their study was published in Current Biology.