Study: Colorism Shapes Perceptions In Politics How much of a role does skin tone play in the perception of a bi-racial candidate? New research says quite a bit. According to findings published Monday by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers digitally lightened and darkened photos of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and showed the images to participants who self-identified as "liberal" and "conservative." The results were intriguing. Guest host Jennifer Ludden speaks with the study's lead researcher, Eugene Caruso, of The University of Chicago, for more.
NPR logo

Study: Colorism Shapes Perceptions In Politics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120748040/120748033" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Study: Colorism Shapes Perceptions In Politics

Study: Colorism Shapes Perceptions In Politics

Study: Colorism Shapes Perceptions In Politics

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/120748040/120748033" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

How much of a role does skin tone play in the perception of a bi-racial candidate? New research says quite a bit. According to findings published Monday by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers digitally lightened and darkened photos of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and showed the images to participants who self-identified as "liberal" and "conservative." The results were intriguing. Guest host Jennifer Ludden speaks with the study's lead researcher, Eugene Caruso, of The University of Chicago, for more.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Now a story about skin tone in politics. We all know how our political views can affect the way we think about issues, but a new study suggests they can also affect the way we literally see political candidates, specifically the complexion of a biracial candidate.

A recent study showed college age students a series of pictures of Barack Obama. Some photos were digitally enhanced to lighten Obama's skin tone, others were digitally darkened, some were unchanged, and the findings were intriguing.

Eugene Caruso is with the University of Chicago, and was the lead researcher in the study, which was published yesterday in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Welcome, Professor Caruso.

Professor EUGENE CARUSO (Behavioral Science, The Chicago University): Thank you, it's nice to be here.

LUDDEN: So, you had self-described liberals and conservatives in this sample group. How did their political affiliation affect their perception of these photos?

Prof. CARUSO: Well, the results were pretty straightforward in that self-described liberals rated the artificially lightened photographs of Obama as more representative of who he really is than the darkened photographs. Whereas self-described conservatives show the opposite effect that is they rated the darkened photos as more representative of Obama than the lightened ones.

LUDDEN: Okay. So, I mean there's an equation there, light equals good, dark equals bad. Is that what you make of it?

Prof. CARUSO: Well, the results from our studies specifically don't exactly point to sort of the good/bad distinction. I think rather what we're trying to show is that one's political beliefs will, you know, the shape, the representations of the candidate that they think sort of best capture who he really is.

Now, this is based on some earlier work in attitudes particularly these implicit attitudes that does show that people tend to associate the concept of white with the concept of goodness to a greater extent than, say, the concept of good with the concept of blackness.

LUDDEN: So, theoretically, you could I mean potentially extrapolate and say, if you showed pictures of Michael Steele, the Republican party leader, liberals would be more likely to think he had a darker skin tone, while conservatives who agreed with him would view him as lighter skinned?

Prof. CARUSO: So, that's an interesting question. And actually we did that study as well. We didn't report it in the paper, but the tricky thing is that for these sort of what we call top down influences or these beliefs or, you know, the political parties, for those to have an affect on things like perception, it turns out the object you're perceiving has to have some sort of ambiguity in it.

So, I mean this speaks to just a broader question about, you know, how people -how their assessments may or may not be biased, when something is very clear cut, there's very little room for bias to creep in. You know�

LUDDEN: For example, you showed pictures of John McCain, it didn't make any difference, white skin is white skin.

Prof. CARUSO: Exactly, right.

LUDDEN: So, biracial candidates are really where this is at play?

Prof. CARUSO: Yes, absolutely. So there wasn't an effect for Steele, but it would be a fascinating question to see whether, you know, conservatives who were evaluating a biracial conservative candidate may show the lightening effect, where as liberals in that case (unintelligible) see the darkening affect because the conservative candidate is not a member of their in-group. He or she doesn't seem to support their own views.

LUDDEN: Does this finding hold for minority students as well. Are blacks also more likely to ascribe a darker skin tone to someone they disagree with politically?

Prof. CARUSO: It's another good question, and we were hoping to be able to test that. Unfortunately, in the samples of participants that we got, we just didn't have enough black or minority participants to reliably test for these differences.

So, what I can say is when we simply look at the non-black participants, the results hold up the way the same pattern or about equal magnitude. But it's hard to draw any conclusions from that because the number of blacks in the sample was so small.

LUDDEN: What do you�

Prof. CARUSO: So, the question certainly does become more complicated, of course, when you have multiple groups to which you belong, say, you're, you know, black conservative then you have sort of maybe (unintelligible) intuitions about a black candidate.

LUDDEN: Right. What are you hoping people take away from this study?

Prof. CARUSO: Well, I think, you know, part of my research is interested in how people on opposing sides of an issue can look at the exact same piece of information and come to very different conclusions about it. And so, I hope this at least provides a step in helping people realize sort of the extent to which their preexisting beliefs or attitudes or motivations or group memberships can have an affect really on how we see the world and maybe help people understand that some of the, you know, some of the differences and opinion may be based on something that they aren't quite aware of.

LUDDEN: You know, in the last presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton's campaign was accused at one point of deliberately darkening Barack Obama's skin in a television ad, the idea being if people saw him as more black they would not want to vote for him - I mean, kind of the bare-knuckled side of politics there, but I'm wondering what implications your study might have for politics.

Mr. CARUSO: Right. So I think that the - you know, the Hillary Clinton ad was interesting in part because I believe, you know, the finding for people who actually analyzed the videos was that they weren't quite so sort of strategic in isolating his skin tone and making just him look darker, but just the overall tone of the ad itself was darker, and I think we've seen this throughout, you know, a number of campaigns.

People are - you know, they have this association with dark and, you know, ominous and the sort of thing that, you know, whether the candidate is black or white, may be employed to try to create more negative associations with the candidate.

And so it is an interesting question that we're trying to follow up on. Basically, what our results show is that your political beliefs can influence your perception of skin tone, but from that we can speculate that the reverse might also be true - that is, seeing the same person when, you know, his skin tone is relatively lighter may cause voters to actually, you know, support that candidate more than seeing that exact same candidate when the skin tone is darker.

LUDDEN: Eugene�

Mr. CARUSO: And so�

LUDDEN: Okay, we'll have to leave it there.

Mr. CARUSO: Okay.

LUDDEN: Eugene Caruso is with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and joined us from Chicago. Thanks so much.

Mr. CARUSO: Thank you.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.