Study: Political Bent Affects How We View Skin Tone

A new study suggests that people's political views may affect how they perceive President Obama's skin tone, with liberals tending to "lighten" his skin and conservatives tending to "darken" it.

"Our beliefs, you know, in this case our political beliefs, can really have pretty profound effects on how we see the world," says Eugene Caruso, a researcher at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. "Our data suggest that people's beliefs affect how light or dark they perceive someone to be."

Caruso has long been interested in how people's social perspectives can affect they way they view things like facts and figures. He recently decided to see how people's political beliefs might also change how they perceive the skin tone of a biracial political candidate.

Testing Perceptions

He and his colleagues took different photos of then-candidate Obama and digitally manipulated them to alter just the areas of exposed skin. "So we sort of isolated the head and the hands of Obama and altered the skin tone to make it relatively lighter in tone or relatively darker in tone," Caruso says.

The research team then showed the altered photos, plus the unaltered ones, one at a time to undergraduate students and asked them to rate the photos in terms of how representative they thought each photo was of the candidate. They researchers also questioned the students about their political views.

Liberal participants were most likely to rate a lightened photo of Obama as being most representative of him, while conservatives were most likely to say that about a photo that had been darkened, according to their findings published in a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Perceived Lightness Tied To Votes

What's more, the researchers found that the degree to which someone saw a lightened photo as being representative of Obama was related to whether he voted for him a week later.

That was true even after the researchers controlled for political views and measures of bias against blacks, says Caruso. "Assuming that people had equal levels of political conservativism," he says, "the extent to which you rated the lightened photos as more representative was, over and above your ideology, also predictive of your voting intentions and your voting behavior."

The researchers also showed students digitally lightened and darkened photos of John McCain but did not find that political affiliation affected people's ratings of the photos.

The study's result "goes along with sort of these cultural ideas that we have about things that are light versus things that are dark as being either good or bad, positive or negative," says Keith Maddox, a psychology researcher at Tufts University who has studied how people perceive skin tone.

He says whether or not you agree with someone's political views apparently "can sort of change the way you perceive them, in a real physical sense."

He says it would be interesting to do a similar study with a conservative biracial candidate, to see if liberals would then "darken" the candidate and conservatives would "lighten" that same person.

Judging Unknown Candidates By Skin Color, Too

Caruso also says he recently has been looking to see if skin tone can affect people's level of support for a novel biracial candidate when people's political affiliation with that candidate is ambiguous.

In one new study, his team used altered photos of a person described in the experiment as a candidate for a position with the Department of Education. People were shown either a darkened, lightened or unaltered photo of the fake candidate and then asked a few questions about their views on various issues facing the department.

All participants were told that the candidate agreed with them on half of the issues. But when asked if that candidate would get their support, says Caruso, "lo and behold, those who saw a photo with darkened skin accompanying the candidate's biography just a few minutes earlier reported that they were less likely to vote for this candidate."

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: