Barack Obama

Why Americans see Obama as black

UC DAVIS (US) — Why is President Barack Obama—the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya—seen as a black man?

People learn about new things by noting attributes that distinguish them from the same types of things that they already know.

A new study demonstrates that the same basic learning pattern also applies when people place others into ethnic categories based on facial characteristics.

“Features that are more typical of minority group members draw more attention,” says Jeffrey Sherman, professor of psychology at University of California at Davis.

“So, when someone has a mixture of features, the minority features are the ones that we tend to grab onto. We pay more attention to them and they are used more heavily in our judgments. They influence us to a greater degree.”

The study—published in the online edition of Psychological Science—looked at two groups: Chinese people who had grown up in China or elsewhere as part of a majority Asian population and Caucasian New Zealanders.

When shown a series of computer-morphed faces with both Asian and Caucasian features, the Chinese group tended to identify ambiguous faces as Caucasians, and the Caucasian group tended to identify ambiguous faces as Asian.

To control for sociopolitical and other variables, the researchers ran a second test in which the two groups were shown just two different faces. But they were shown one much more often than the other. For example, the groups were shown two different Caucasian faces, although they saw one of the two faces three times more than the other.

“We made the one face the majority face and the other the minority face,” Sherman explains.

When the two faces were morphed together, participants were more likely to categorize the result as the minority face. This again shows that features of the minority face are given more weight in an ambiguous situation, Sherman says.

Thus, while motivational, political, sociological and economic factors may play a role in the assignment of mixed-race individuals to minority groups, they are not necessary for that to occur.

The study, Sherman says, showed that the phenomenon “could be based on a very basic and general cognitive process of how we learn to distinguish things from each other—one kind of dog from another dog, one kind of disease from another disease, one kind of car from another car.”

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