Sinclair scrutinizes prejudice and stereotypes

Social psychologist Stacey Sinclair deconstructs prejudice.

By Christine Parker Martin (Foreign Affairs '92)
Sinclair.

Sinclair.
Photo by Richard Robinson.

How do our interpersonal relationships affect our own unconscious prejudices? And how do they influence our self-view? Social psychologist Stacey Sinclair wants to know.

“My research aims to demonstrate the power our social relationships have on our social beliefs,” said Sinclair, assistant professor of psychology. Much of her work contradicts what social psychologists have assumed for years.

Recently, Sinclair demonstrated how an interpersonal relationship could reduce a person’s automatic prejudice — an unconscious association of either “good” or “bad” with different social groups, a process once thought to be unchangeable.

Students participating in one study were exposed to a Caucasian or African-American experimenter who wore either a plain T-shirt or an antiracism T-shirt. Students also were influenced to either “like” or “dislike” the experimenter — by means of an offer of candy or a rude remark, for example.

Regardless of the experimenter’s race, “we found that a student’s automatic prejudice was reduced, albeit unconsciously, based on the perceived antiracism beliefs held by the experimenter when the experimenter was liked by the student,” explained Sinclair. The next phase of her research will be studying how long the automatic prejudice adjustment lasts.

Sinclair is also studying how a person’s perception of being stereotyped can affect self-views. “Classic social psychology assumes that members of stereotyped groups ubiquitously and inevitably hold stereotype-consistent self-views. I argue that self-stereotyping can be a function of the interpersonal environment,” said Sinclair, who is beginning to explore this idea with African-American students in relation to their overall academic self-evaluation, as well as with female students and how they evaluate their math skills.

Sinclair said she “tried hard not to be a psychology major” while studying economics as an undergraduate at Stanford. But a passion for psychology helped her change her mind and pursue a doctorate in psychology at UCLA. Said Sinclair: “Our self-understanding is just more flexible than psychologists originally gave it credit for.”