Exploring prejudice, stereotyping and the need to get along

by Ushma Patel

If people want to change the attitudes of those around them, they can wear their beliefs on their sleeve — literally, says social psychologist Stacey Sinclair.

Sinclair, who joined the Princeton faculty as an associate professor of psychology and African American studies in July, studies the way interpersonal contact relates to ethnic and gender stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination of the self and others. She is inspired by shared reality theory, which hypothesizes that individuals develop beliefs in common with others around them to create interpersonal bonds and to make themselves feel more certain.

Stacey Sinclair (left), an associate professor of psychology, examines how interpersonal contact relates to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination, with the belief that individuals often unconsciously develop beliefs in common with others to create interpersonal bonds and have smooth interactions. For instance, a person wearing a peace sign could contribute to pro-peace attitudes in the people with whom she interacts. (photo: Brian Wilson)

One line of Sinclair’s research shows that people’s attitudes are influenced by the people they encounter, even briefly. For example, a woman wearing an anti-racism T-shirt may lessen the prejudicial views of the people who interact with her for a few minutes.

“Part of the point of our research is that they [ethnic and gender attitudes] are not as internal as you think,” Sinclair said. “Who we are in terms of these attitudes is in part a function of who we’re around.”

Sinclair, who taught at the University of Virginia from 1999 to 2008 after earning her Ph.D. from the University of California-Los Angeles, said her studies began as a quest to understand ethnic and gender stereotyping and reduce it. She also wanted to understand the targets’ perspective and to ameliorate the effects of being subjected to prejudice, she said.

At Princeton, Sinclair fits into a larger group of researchers in the psychology department who study prejudice and discrimination, including chair Deborah Prentice, professors Susan Fiske, Joel Cooper and John Darley, associate professor Nicole Shelton and assistant professor Emily Pronin (see story on page 6). In the future, Sinclair also may want to work with some of the department’s experts in brain imaging to identify some of the physiological mechanisms involved in reducing prejudice, she said.

“I feel exceptionally fortunate to be in this great psychology department, particularly one that has a number of people working on related issues. We are all connected intellectually, but not overlapping,” Sinclair said. “This makes it ripe for collaboration.”

In addition to teaching a seminar this semester, “Social Stigma: On Being a Target of Prejudice,” Sinclair is pursuing three main tracks of research related to ethnic and gender stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination of the self and others. (photo: Brian Wilson)

Sinclair is skilled in designing rigorous and compelling experiments for testing people’s motivations, said Fiske, who studies how stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination are affected by social factors such as cooperation, competition and power.

“These kinds of lab experiments where people are interacting are hard to do and hard to do well,” Fiske said. “Stacey fits the best Princeton traditions of designing compelling scenarios for people to interact in, and that pick up on real behavior. She’s harnessing some of the fundamental motivations and showing how they can be used to improve intergroup interactions.”

In addition to teaching a three-hour seminar this semester called “Social Stigma: On Being a Target of Prejudice,” Sinclair is pursuing three main tracks of research.

Her work on how interpersonal contact affects attitudes shows that even fleeting interactions between individuals can have a major impact. In tests given after interaction with an experimenter, the participants in Sinclair’s experiments responded with less prejudicial views or higher self-esteem after contact with experimenters wearing T-shirts with anti-racism statements or statements affirming a stigmatized group to which they belong. In repeat visits in which the experimenter was no longer wearing an affirmative message, the participants still showed higher self-esteem. Controls involved blank T-shirts and posters rather than people carrying the message.

“It’s not the message, it’s not the room, it’s the relationship with that person,” Sinclair said.

Another line of Sinclair’s research involves studying whether an individual’s negative attitudes about one ethnic group can be transferred. In one experiment, white participants with high levels of prejudice toward African Americans also showed strong dislike of whites who interacted with African Americans.

The psychological underpinnings of how different people relate to one another are important factors in better understanding major societal issues, ranging from race relations to international diplomacy. This issue of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin profiles two faculty members in the Department of Psychology, Stacey Sinclair and Emily Pronin, whose research has advanced knowledge of how people react to and interact with others.

“They are both up-and-coming stars in social psychology, and their interests are overlapping,” said Deborah Prentice, chair of the psychology department. “Both have appointments in other units on campus — Stacey in the Center for African American Studies and Emily in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — so they illustrate psychology’s connections with the broader intellectual community.”

“Our attitudes shape our interpersonal environment, so in addition to not wanting to interact with African Americans, [some white] people might be choosing like-minded people” as their friends, Sinclair said.

Sinclair’s third line of research involves self-stereotyping, and shows that people often describe themselves and behave in a stereotypical fashion in order to get along better with others. For example, in one experiment, African Americans were shown a picture of a white man named David and told that they would be trying out for an academic team. Some were told that David was the team leader, while others were told that he also was trying out. David also was described to some as having characteristics that, according to pretesting with separate participants, hinted he might be biased against African Americans — for example, he wanted to be a corporate lawyer. Others were told that he was interested in civil rights law and had other characteristics that hinted he might have more egalitarian views.

“What we found was if David had power over you and was ‘corporate David,’ the African Americans self-described as less smart,” Sinclair said. “What was concerning was that you could make the argument that when [faced with] someone with stereotypical views, that’s when African Americans might want to gear up and present themselves as smarter.” Instead, she said, they act in a more self-effacing way to ensure a “smooth interaction.”

Sinclair has several papers in the process of being published and continues to develop new experiments.

“Because the issue is so complex and my goal is to make things better, I can make things maybe a little better in my lifetime, but I don’t think we’ll solve anything,” she said. “It will be a problem that we’ll always be trying to solve.”