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Research News

July 08, 2002

Study: Prejudice's deep roots still alive in Canada

Still struggling: Negative concepts and incompetence are still more likely to be automatically associated with physical minorities and women, says University of Guelph Psychology Professor, Leanne Son Hing.

Photo: Olivia Brown

Many Canadians have no tolerance for outward expressions of prejudice toward women and visible minorities, but experts say most people still retain inward prejudices toward these groups, often without realizing it.

University of Guelph psychology Prof. Leanne Son Hing is studying how implicit prejudice - that is, prejudice people are unaware they're harbouring - affects the way Canadians behave toward one another.

"Over the last 20 to 30 years, prejudice has become more socially unacceptable, but we're discovering it's still not a thing of the past," says Son Hing. "We're finding now that people have implicit prejudices of which they may be unaware."

Prejudicial tendencies can be measured in two categories: "explicit prejudice," which is consciously held and expressed deliberately, and "implicit prejudice," which is harboured subconsciously and is expressed inadvertently. With her students and research collaborator Dr. Mark Zanna of the University of Waterloo, Son Hing is measuring both types of prejudice in study participants, and examining how they affect their behaviour.

"Because respondents presumably know their explicit prejudiced attitudes, it can be measured through questionnaires." Son Hing says. "Implicit prejudice is more difficult to gauge, because they're the kinds of negative attitudes and emotions that, by definition, participants don't know exist."

To assess implicit prejudice, computer-based tests measure participants' split-second responses to visual stimuli. For example, computer programs assess the degree to which people associate positive and negative words with different ethnic groups.

Son Hing and her colleagues found more than 90 per cent of white study participants appear to more quickly associate negative (versus positive) concepts with visible minorities than with whites, and more than 75 per cent of men appear to more quickly associate incompetence (versus competence) with women than with men. Incredibly, she says, these biases are often found among people who report themselves to be unprejudiced.

So far in her research program, Son Hing has found that people's implicit prejudice makes their reactions predictable in areas such as support for ethnic groups on campus, the evaluation of visible minority job candidates, and opposition to affirmative action in the workplace.

Participants that hold implicit prejudices are more likely to evaluate visible minorities and women as incompetent, and they're less likely to support programs or initiatives for these groups. Son Hing says her research reveals this pattern, despite participants' assertions that they are unprejudiced.

"People can't always control the way they respond to others; if they are implicitly prejudiced they are likely to discriminate despite their attempts to control those reactions," she says.

Yet there is hope for those with implicit prejudices. Son Hing says that when people who consider themselves unprejudiced become aware of their own implicit prejudice, they usually make immediate steps to correct it.

"If people become aware of their discrepant attitudes, they will bend over backwards to avoid discriminatory behaviour," she says.

In future research, Son Hing wants to examine more closely how consciousness-raising might be used to reduce people's implicit prejudice.

This research is sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

by Lisa Caines

Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge -SPARK- is a student-based research communication initiative. It has been offering first-hand experience to students interested in journalism and research writing at the University of Guelph since 1988. Guelph's SPARK model has been adopted by 18 other universities across Canada, through the help of Canada's largest scientific-granting agency, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

As one of its many activities, SPARK contributes a bylined, weekly column, "SPARKplugs," to the Guelph daily paper, the Guelph Mercury, which then distributes it nationally over the Canadian Press wire service.

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