The Science of How We See Obama’s Skin Color
When it comes to the policies and politics of Barack Obama, it’s no secret that liberals and conservatives don’t see eye to eye. But according to behavioral sciencist Eugene Caruso of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, these differences in perspective may literally be a difference in perception. In a new study, Caruso and colleagues Emily Balcetis of New York University and Nicole Mead of Tillberg University asked a group of undergraduates which of a series of photographs of Obama–some of them secretly lightened and darkened–best represented who he is as a person. The results were striking: while self-described liberals tended to pick the digitally lightened photos of the president, self-described conservative students more frequently picked the darkened images. The more one agrees with a politician, in other words, the lighter his skin tone seems; the less you agree, the darker it becomes. To discuss how political affinities influence perception–and how politicians and the press could take advantage of these findings–NEWSWEEK’s Andrew Romano spoke to Caruso. Excerpts:
How did the study actually work?
Essentially we were interested in whether political party influences how people literally see the world, and how they may see different depictions of candidates as representative of who they really are. So to test this we gathered up a bunch of photos of Barack Obama and digitally altered them to create a version where his skin tone appeared a bit lighter and a version where his skin tone was a bit darker than it appeared in the original photograph. And then we just showed people several different photos and asked them to rate each one on how much they represented who he really is. What we found was that participants who told us that they had a liberal political orientation rated the lightened photographs as more representative of Obama than the darkened photographs, whereas participants who told us they had a more conservative ideology rated the darkened photographs as more representative of Obama than the lightened ones.
I’m no expert here, but you’re confident that it’s the skin tone that changes “representativeness” in the eyes of the voter, as opposed to something else about the photographs—like pose, or background, or facial expression?
That’s a great question. What we did was essentially take three different photos with three different poses, and created for each photo a lightened and a darkened version. And then we randomly selected the combination of pose and skin tone that we showed each participant.
So your findings about “representativeness” were consistent across poses—the conservative will be twice as likely to say a “darkened” Obama was representative, regardless of which image of Obama was being darkened?
Right. We were experimentally able to isolate the effect of skin tone because some people saw a lightened version of pose #1 and others saw a darkened version of pose #1—and independent of the pose the lightened versions seemed most representative to liberals and the darkened most representative to conservatives.
Were you surprised by the results?
A little bit. Some of my research deals with how people who have different views on a subject are able to try to understand the views of someone on the other side, and the general finding is that people aren’t particularly good at really coming to understand the perspective of someone with whom they disagree. Beyond that, though, I got interested in this notion of whether our beliefs can actually affect the way we see the world—of whether they can actually affect our perception of objects or people in our environment. And it turns out they can.
Ultimately, what does it mean that someone believes a lightened version of Obama is more representative of him than a darkened version, and vice versa? What are the larger implications of these differences in perception?
Partisanship can affect all sorts of beliefs. It’s not surprising that a liberal and a conservative who read the same health care bill would come to very different conclusions about its merits. But I think our work is more akin to having a liberal and conservative look at the exact same physical copy of a bill sitting on the desk in front of them and disagreeing over how thick it is. That is, even something that we feel we should be able to see similarly, like a person’s racial identity or physical characteristics, can be influenced by our desire to see that person favorably or unfavorably.
But isn’t there a chicken or egg relationship here? Do conservatives see Obama as darker and are thus prone to dislike him, or do they dislike him first and then see him as darker because of it?
That’s a great question. One of the things we’re trying to do now is experimentally try to tease those two options apart. Basically, what we have in our current paper, the one that’s out now, is correlational studies of Obama where we don’t really know what comes first or what’s causing what. The first study in the paper tries to address part of what you’re asking. If we get people to think about a novel candidate and simply manipulate whether they agree with a candidate or not, we can show that people who think this novel biracial candidate agrees with them later report that the lightened photos are more representative of him, suggesting that if you agree with someone then you may come to see him as lighter. From that we can speculate, exactly as you have, about the reverse path—and that is, seeing images of someone when his or her skin tone looks darker may cause people to like that person less than seeing images of that person with lighter skin tone.
read the entire interview here