Sunday 11 December 2011

The Jane Elliott Study

The Jane Elliott Study

A classic study which very clearly illustrates the cumulative impact
of wrongful social definitions upon people was conducted in 1968 through
1971, by Jane Elliott. Ms. Elliott was a rather unlikely candidate for the
authoring of one of social science's most creative and important studies.
She worked as a third grade teacher in the small northeastern Iowa town
of Riceville. Up until the time of her experiment she had been a very
motherly, highly respected teacher who had been well liked by all.
However, upon the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in March
1968, she became very distressed and upset. She wanted to teach her
eight and nine year old pupils the evils of racial discrimination, but did
not know how to approach the problem in a way that would prove
incisive and thoroughly convincing. Eight year olds cannot be lectured
to in the way that university students and adults are commonly dealt
with in educational settings. And aggravating the problem was the fact
that most of her young pupils had never even seen a black person apart
from on television or in the movies. The children were all living in a
very rural part of a state which has very few black residents. Of our
fifty states, only Wyoming has a smaller fraction of black residents than
does Iowa.
She finally hit upon a plan which she decided to pursue with
enthusiasm and conviction. She entered her classroom one morning with
a large book which she claimed had been written by a very famous
scientist who is extremely wise and knowledgeable. She proceeded to
tell her young pupils that this scientist had determined that brown-eyed
people are naturally dirty, unkempt, uncooperative, incapable of learning
at a satisfactory speed, incapable of retaining knowledge, discourteous,
unlikely to go far in life, etc. She proceeded to enumerate quite
systematically a whole host of ways whereby brown-eyed people were
alleged by the scientist to be inferior to blue-eyed people. And since her
class was composed of nine brown-eyed children and nine blue-eyed
children (and she herself was green-eyed), she had rather fertile soil for
her experiment.
Again, Ms. Elliott had been well-liked, and there was a very strong
tendency for these impressionable young minds to believe everything
that she said. And as she proceeded through her twenty minute sermon
about the evils of brown-eyed people and the virtues of those with blue
eyes, she could see the brown-eyed children begin to slouch and to
travel off into a world of daydreams. In fact, throughout the experimental
day the disparaged brown-eyed children reacted primarily in one of four
different ways—depending upon their individual temperaments:
(1) withdrawing and going off into a world of fantasy, daydreams, or
sleep; (2) crying and sulking; (3) clowning and goofing off behavior; and
(4) hostile, obstreperous, inconsiderate and/or bullying behavior.
Meanwhile, as Ms. Elliott made her way through the same initial
spiel, the blue-eyed children began to sit up more and more erect. They
began to pay attention to what was going on in class more closely and
intensely than many of them had ever done before. In essence, right
from the very outset of the experiment the disparaged group (browneyed
children) and the exalted group (blue-eyed youngsters) began to
behave in dramatically and very conspicuously different ways.
After Ms. Elliott completed her twenty minute lecture she
announced that since brown-eyed children are not likely to go very far
in life anyway, and since they do not learn as well as other youngsters,
are dirtier, less cooperative, etc., it makes good sense to accord them
fewer classroom privileges than the "naturally superior" blue-eyed children
should be accorded. And with that she ran down a prepared list
of new rules and restrictions that would impact the brown-eyed children
from that moment on. And just so that each child in the classroom could
tell every other child apart on the basis of the criterion of eye color, she
placed large black collars around the necks of each of the brown-eyed
youngsters. Once this was accomplished everyone could easily tell
whether any particular pupil had brown eyes or blue eyes.
Then she began to involve the children in their daily reading lesson.
As usual each child was required to read aloud a passage from a third
grade reader. When a blue-eyed child made a mistake or stumbled through
a passage, Ms. Elliott helped him/her along in a kindly manner, and
then praised him/her. If a blue-eyed student read a passage well, lavish
praise was heaped upon him/her. And she would say: "See, that just
goes to show that everything I said is really true. Blue-eyed people really
are smarter; and they learn their reading lessons much better than browneyed
children do."
On the other hand, if a brown-eyed child read his/her passage
without error, Ms. Elliott rather abruptly asked the child to stop, and
she immediately moved on to the next child without according the browneyed
youngster a word of praise or recognition. If a brown-eyed youngster
stumbled through a passage, she reacted with a statement similar
to this: "See, that just goes to show how brown-eyed children just won't
In essence, positive or disparaging remarks were systematically
applied to the children throughout the day strictly on the basis of eye
color. Positive behavior was ignored in the brown-eyed youngsters
whereas negative behavior was always noticed and punished with a
rather coldly phrased comment such as: "I guess this is what can naturally
be expected from brown-eyed youngsters."
By the end of the school day quite remarkable changes had occurred
in Ms. Elliott's classroom. For example, the brown-eyed third graders
had regressed to first grade reading level, whereas the blue-eyed third
graders were reading at or beyond the fifth grade level. Arithmetic scores,
vocabulary scores, spelling scores, and all other academic criteria
employed to assess change in young children showed that the blue-eyed
pupils were all performing (1) far beyond what would normally be
expected for third graders, and (2) far beyond where they (these very
same children) had performed just one week prior to the experiment.
These same test scores similarly revealed the brown-eyed children to be
functioning at a level that was (1) far below what would ordinarily be
expected for third grade youngsters, and (2) far below the level of performance
that they had displayed just one week prior to the experiment.
Academic performance was hardly the only thing to be affected by
the experimental design that Ms. Elliott had imposed upon her pupils.
After a mere six hours of their new experiences in Ms. Elliott's classroom
the brown-eyed children had all suffered serious blows to their selfimages.
None of these children liked themselves anymore, and they
displayed these self-disparaging attitudes in a whole host of ways. Some
of the children cried and sulked. Many began to behave in a sullen and
disrespectful manner. Several of the nine brown-eyed children spoke of
how they didn't want to come to school anymore, and about how they
would find ways to play hookey. All began to look increasingly dirty
and unkempt. None revealed any interest in learning or in open, friendly
socializing with their classmates.
Contrariwise, by the end of the school day the blue-eyed children
had begun behaving far more maturely towards their teacher and visa-
vis each other than they had ever behaved before. Each child displayed
a conspicuously strong enthusiasm for learning and asserted himself/
herself in a friendly, courteous matter, except vis-a-vis their disparaged
brown-eyed classmates. And this was as true for children who just one
day prior had been the class clowns, the "slow learners", and the allround
"bad boys", as it had been for the blue-eyed children who had
always performed well. The posture, grooming, and attitudes towards
self that were manifested by these blue-eyed children were nothing short
of amazing.
It is not necessary to summarize here all of the many interesting
facets of Ms. Elliott's experiment. Interested readers will find a good
coverage of the study in her book entitled A CLASS DIVIDED which I
have listed in the bibliography at the end of this volume. Suffice it to
say that she ran the study on four different third grade classes: 1968
through 1971. And each year she reversed things on the second day of
the experiment. In other words, on the second day she advised the
children that she had made a mistake, and that it was really brown-eyed
people who are "superior", and that blue-eyed people are actually the
inferior ones.
It should be stressed that Ms. Elliott's findings proved equally
strong each time she ran the experiment. Similarly, immediately after
she turned the tables she found that the academic performance and the
mental attitudes of the blue-eyed children slid downhill in an extremely
dramatic and precipitous fashion; whereas the performance and the
mental attitudes of the brown-eyed children shot upward quite drastically
after only a very short period of time in the exalted role.


  1. fascinating and hitherto unknown to me. About ten years ago when I was teaching sociology to illustrate stratification (not so much racial prejudice) I used to divide the classes I taught into two groups those with blue eyes and those not, or sometimes those with brown eyes and those not. I would then reward the blue eyed students with jaffa cakes or bars of chocolate while the others got nothing. The students got the ideas very quickly !

  2. I waited on the Iowa school teacher who invented that process. She was completely and blissfully unaware about how sanctimonious her airs were.

    This is a silly experiment.

  3. Racial prejudice is a fact of biology. Unfortunately, the high-minded sentiments engendered by such political forces against this natural inclination to associate with ones own kind, don't extend themselves equally across the races.

    The only people who are liable to be designated as racists are white European males, for the most part.