Washington: It's known that no matter how egalitarian a person purports to be, the unconscious mind may hold some racist, sexist or ageist thoughts. Now, a new study has found that this speaks less about the individual and more about the culture that surrounds him or her.

The new study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, found that while people are quick to associate word pairs that bring to mind stereotypes, this tendency is rooted not in the social meaning of the words, but in the likelihood of the words appearing together in books and media.

In other words, this implicit prejudice is driven more by culture than by any innate horribleness in the person, said study researcher Paul Verhaeghen, a Georgia Tech psychologist.

"There's one idea that people tend to associate black people with violence, women with weakness, or older people with forgetfulness because they are prejudiced. But there's another possibility that what's in your head is not you, it's the culture around you," Verhaeghen was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

"And so what you have is the stuff you picked up from reading, television and Internet. And that's the question we wanted to answer: are you indeed a racist, or are you just an American?"

For their study, Verhaeghen and his colleagues carried out tests on 104 undergraduates. In the first, the students saw two words flashed on a computer screen one after another, and then had to say whether the second word was a real word.

In the second, the words would flash onscreen, and the participants would rate whether the second word was positive or negative. The third experiment was identical, except students were asked whether the two words were related.

The word pairs were a mixture of stereotyped terms about men, women, blacks, whites and young and old people. There were also non-social word pairs such as "cat-jumpy" and "dog-dumb". Some of the pairs included nonsense words as well.

In all three experiments, a faster reaction time in answering the question indicates a closer link between the two words in the brain. Like in other studies, participants were faster at reacting to word pairs that elicited stereotypes.

The researchers then analysed the results using a computer programme called BEAGLE, or the Bound Encoding of the Aggregate Language Environment, which contained a sample of books, magazine and newspaper articles, about 10 million words total. It's meant to mimic the amount of reading an average college student has done in his or her life.

Comparing their participants' results to BEAGLE confirmed that, words that appear more often together in the real world trigger faster reaction times in the lab. This applies for positive and negative stereotypes, such as "male -- strong" and "female -- weak" and for completely neutral pairs such as "summer -- sunny".

There was also no relationship between people's implicit prejudices as measured by reaction time, and their explicit racism, sexism or ageism as measured by questionnaires.

"This suggests that at least part of the alleged racist/ sexist/ageist hiding inside us all is a monster not of our own making; it is built out of memes borrowed from close contact with our environment," Verhaeghen said.