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Psychologist Explore Unconscious Sources of Racial Prejudice
Timothy Wilson
Photo by Caroline Sheen
Timothy Wilson, chairman of the psychology department, reads from his latest book, “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.”

March 19, 2003

By Matt Kelly

People may carry hidden prejudices of which their conscious minds are not aware, three psychology professors told about 100 students, faculty and staff Monday evening.

The theory, first advanced about 15 years ago, was presented by psychology professors Timothy D. Wilson, Stacey Sinclair and Brian A. Nosek during a "teach-in" on racism and prejudice.

The program was one of many in the wake of the reported attack on Student Council president-elect Daisy Lundy, who said she was assaulted on Feb. 26 by a man who uttered a racial slur about her candidacy. Local and federal law-enforcement authorities are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

While there has been a decline in overt racism, the professors said, some researchers believe implicit prejudices exist at an unconscious level, though it is unclear what, if any, difference this makes in people’s lives.

Race is biologically insignificant, Wilson said, accounting for 0.01 percent of humans’ genetic make-up, but it is an important social factor. Race relations in the country have improved, he said, but unconscious racism, in a culture rife with stereotypes, is less controllable and more difficult to avoid or influence.

Nosek, who led the audience through an exercise he said demonstrated a pro-white bias, said that while the implicit prejudice theory is still controversial, it can be the starting point of a discussion.

"This is ‘unconscious raising,’" he said after the program. "It lets people know that there is more to my mind than I am aware of."

Wilson, who said he initially was skeptical, now believes the theory.

"I hope we can start a dialogue and address the question of what psychology has to offer here," Wilson said. "It is one discipline among many."

Sinclair, who deals with issues of prejudice in many of her courses, said implicit prejudice manifests itself in subtle ways, such as increased blinking in the presence of people toward whom one is unconsciously biased or sitting farther away from them. Subtle prejudice can become self-fulfilling, she said, with the targeted person acting differently because he is being treated differently.

The racial climate of a place can make members of a targeted group feel that they do not belong. At the University, this can reduce their academic engagement and prevent them from using the school’s full resources, she said.

Mixing groups reduces prejudice, Sinclair said. This co-mingling needs the sanction of authorities and people must be on the same status level, with common goals and cooperation.

To foster a good racial climate at the University, Sinclair said, the administration should enhance and maintain diversity, create opportunities for inter-group contact and support equality.

The co-mingling of groups may reduce prejudice even if it is forced, said Sinclair, while forming close friendships across group lines is the best solution.

Mixing dissimilar groups in student housing can reduce prejudice, Sinclair suggested. Angela M. Davis, assistant dean of students and director of residence life, said officials had rejected taking away first-year students’ ability to choose housing, and they are only required to live on Grounds.

"Students have said that the most important thing that happened to them was learning from people who were different from themselves," said Davis.

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