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Establishing whether children form stereotypes via statistical learning

Project Description

This project will establish how children’s social stereotypes form as they repeatedly encounter social information across different situations. People acquire much of their stereotype knowledge during childhood, yet it is unclear how such stereotype associations form. Taking inspiration from recent advances in linguistics and developmental psychology, we propose that children form stereotypes because, over many encounters, they develop probabilistic associations between social categories and certain attributes, through a process known as “statistical learning”. By examining children’s memory for information associated with novel social categories (i.e., alien characters), we will establish the cognitive and social processes that allow individual episodic memories of unique social encounters to be transformed into simplified semantic social category stereotypes.

Statistical learning has recently emerged as one of the leading explanations for how children acquire language. Children can store in memory many ambiguous co-occurrences between objects and utterances and, over time, assimilate this knowledge to probabilistically compute correct word-object pairings. For example, while across many instances the word "dog" is likely to co-occur in the presence of many different objects in the environment, over time "dog" will co-occur most often with the presence of a dog and allow the child to draw the correct statistical inference about the word-to-object pairing. Thus, over time children automatically and incrementally acquire their lexicon from their exposure to the linguistic environment.

We suggest that, akin to statistical learning in language, children store together in memory co-occurrences of social category members (e.g., girl) and associated characteristics (e.g., has pink jacket) and over many encounters implicitly learn which category-characteristic combinations are probabilistically most likely to co-occur. We suggest that through statistical learning, children’s social category stereotype content gradually accumulates without any need for volition, effort or conscious awareness.

We recently demonstrated that novel stereotype-like structure spontaneously forms and evolves when social information is repeatedly passed from person to person This project will adapt aspects of our previous methodology to examine how stereotypes form in memory at the level of the individual. The project will involve designing and running behavioural experiments to establish how memory for social information changes over time. All relevant programming and statistics training will be provided throughout the duration of the project.

The ideal candidate will be someone who is interested in answering fundamental social psychological questions from a social cognition perspective and who is intelligent, inquisitive, diligent, and who can thrive working within a team environment.

• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology
• State name of the lead supervisor as the Name of Proposed Supervisor
• State ‘Self-funded’ as Intended Source of Funding
• State the exact project title on the application form

When applying please ensure all required documents are attached:
• All degree certificates and transcripts (Undergraduate AND Postgraduate MSc-officially translated into English where necessary)
• Detailed CV
• Details of 2 academic referees

Informal inquiries can be made to Dr Doug Martin () with a copy of your curriculum vitae and cover letter. General enquiries should be directed to the Postgraduate Research School ().

Funding Notes

This project is advertised in relation to the research area of the School of Psychology. The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for Tuition fees, living expenses and maintenance. Details of the cost of study can be found by visiting View Website. THERE IS NO FUNDING ATTACHED TO THESE PROJECTS


Martin, D., Hutchison, J., Slessor, G., Urquhart, J., Cunningham, S.J., & Smith, K. (2014). The spontaneous formation of stereotypes via cumulative cultural evolution. Psychological Science, 25, 1777-1786, doi:10.1177/0956797614541129

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