The development of race-based perceptual categorization skin color dominates early category judgments

Yarrow Dunham, Elena V. Stepanova, Ron Dotsch, Alexander Todorov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


Prior research on the development of race-based categorization has concluded that children understand the perceptual basis of race categories from as early as age 4 (e.g. Aboud, 1988). However, such work has rarely separated the influence of skin color from other physiognomic features considered by adults to be diagnostic of race categories. In two studies focusing on Black-White race categorization judgments in children between the ages of 4 and 9, as well as in adults, we find that categorization decisions in early childhood are determined almost entirely by attention to skin color, with attention to other physiognomic features exerting only a small influence on judgments as late as middle childhood. We further find that when skin color cues are largely eliminated from the stimuli, adults readily shift almost entirely to focus on other physiognomic features. However, 6- and 8-year-old children show only a limited ability to shift attention to facial physiognomy and so perform poorly on the task. These results demonstrate that attention to 'race' in younger children is better conceptualized as attention to skin color, inviting a reinterpretation of past work focusing on children's race-related cognition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)469-483
Number of pages15
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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