ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2023, Vol. 55 ›› Issue (9): 1424-1440.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2023.01424

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

The preference and development for societal-type cues in 3- to 8-year-olds' perception of groups

WANG Yang1,2, WEN Fangfang1,2, ZUO Bin3,1()   

  1. 1School of Psychology, Center for Studies of Social Psychology, Central China Normal University,
    2Key Laboratory of Adolescent Cyberpsychology and Behavior, Ministry of Education, Wuhan 430079, China
    3Department of Psychology, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou 510006, China
  • Published:2023-09-25 Online:2023-06-09
  • Contact: ZUO Bin
  • Supported by:
    National Social Science Fund of China(18ZDA331);National Social Science Fund of China(20FSHB003);Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities(CCNU19ZN021)


Perception of groups develops from an early age. Previous studies focused on groups with perceptual-salient cues like gender and race. As highlighted in the intuitive theories of social categorization, children perceive social groups as natural kinds or serving functional roles of social obligation. However, the priority of these two aspects affecting children's group perception is yet to be explored. Our current research summarized these two aspects into physical-type and societal-type cues. Physical-type cues are identified by perceptual-salient attributes related to people like color, gender, and socioeconomic status (SES). Societal-type cues reflect shared attitudes, beliefs, and values among group members, such as common interests, group belongings, and norms. It has previously been found that children start to endorse prescriptive norms around age five. Therefore, we assume that children's preferences for societal-type cues will increase across ages 3 to 8, with a critical period of 5 to 6 years of age.

Study 1 was tested online. A total of 215 children (108 males) ages 3 to 8 were recruited. Three physical-type and three societal-type cues were paired under nine experimental conditions. Two tasks were conducted in random order between the participants: The Triad Classification Task and the Exclusion Task. Both tasks required participants to categorize targets based on one of the two given cues (each represented by one cue-type). In the Triad Classification Task, children needed to select one target from two peers, and in the Exclusion Task, they needed to exclude one target. Study 2 tested 3- to 8-year-old children offline (3- to 4-year-olds: 32 children; 5- to 6-year-olds: 21 children; 7- to 8-year-olds: 20 children). Six cues were combined into two experimental conditions (gender × color × norm vs. SES × common interest × belonging). Children were tested using the Opening Social Categorization Task, in which they categorized eight targets into two groups, and reported the reasons for categorization.

Results of the two studies demonstrated that 3- to 8-year-olds could apply physical-type and societal-type cues to group perception. Specifically, children rely more on societal-type cues than physical-type cues as they grow up. The 3- to 4-year-olds preferred societal-type cues in social categorization tasks with two choices (Study 1), and physical-type cues in tasks offering three choices (Study 2). Children aged 5 to 8 displayed preferences for societal-type cues in the tasks of Study 1, whereas showed no cue preferences in Study 2. Therefore, for young children (3- to 6-year-olds), their preferences for societal-type cues were sensitive to the number of cues provided in the social categorization tasks, and offline versus online measurements. Moreover, children's cue-type preferences differed significantly between 3- to 4-year-olds (preferred physical-type cues) and 7- to 8-year-olds (preferred societal-type cues). Thus, the critical period for developing a preference for societal cues was 5 to 6 years of age.

This study constructs a new framework of physical-type and societal-type cues to understand children's social categorization and group perception. These two types of cues reflect children's perceptual and conceptual foundation in their social categorization. Across ages, children's ability to apply physical-type and societal-type cues supports the intuitive theory of social categorization that children are naturally perceived as groups from two aspects. Physical and societal aspects may be the basic dimensions of group perception. Future research could extend the present findings to other social categories, and more importantly, provide more neurobiological evidence for children's biases toward societal-type cues.

Key words: 3-to 8-year-old children, group perception, cue preference, intuitive theory of social categorization, generalized linear mixed model