Obama

Researchers showed groups of undergraduate students a set of photos of Barack Obama that were taken during the 2008 presidential debates or from his campaign Web site. The subjects were asked which images were most representative of the president, and then indicated their political beliefs. While some of the photos were unaltered, the researchers digitally lightened or darkened Obama’s skin tone in others. (Copyright: PNAS)

NYU (US)—Political beliefs may affect perceptions of skin tone. People perceive lighter skin tone to be more representative of a candidate with whom they share political ideology than darker skin tone, a new study finds.

Lead researcher Eugene Caruso, assistant professor of behavioral science at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and his colleagues showed groups of undergraduate students a set of photos of Barack Obama that were taken during the 2008 presidential debates or from his campaign Web site. The subjects were asked which images were most representative of the president, and then indicated their political beliefs.

While some of the photos were unaltered, the researchers digitally lightened or darkened Obama’s skin tone in others (unbeknownst to the research participants). The researchers report that self-described liberal students tended to judge lightened photos of Obama as most representative of him, while self-described conservative students more frequently picked darkened photos.

The study also found that regardless of their political views, students who rated a lightened photo as most representative of Obama before the 2008 presidential election were more likely to report having voted for him in the presidential election.

The authors are planning to explore whether liberal and conservative media outlets depict subtly different images of political candidates, and whether the specific images to which voters are exposed may influence voting behavior, Caruso says.

“Subtle differences in a person’s skin tone may affect other consequential decisions in which pictures are part of the evaluation process, such as who we hire for a job,” Caruso adds.

The study suggests that discussion should not only concern how people perceive blacks versus whites, but also how perceptions of blacks or biracial people vary within these groups, he notes.

Previous research has demonstrated that people tend to have more negative stereotypes of dark-skinned blacks compared to light-skinned blacks, according to Caruso. “Moreover, although the number of blacks in public office has increased dramatically over the years, there is some evidence that dark-skinned blacks are under-represented as elected officials relative to light-skinned blacks.”

Researchers from New York University and Tilburg University in the Netherlands contributed to the study, which was published in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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