Are Politics Skin-Deep? Liberal Voters See Obama as Lighter Skinned

By Brett Israel | November 23, 2009 5:49 pm

obama-skin-toneResearchers are making the case that a person’s political views cause them to see with a tinted perspective.

Scientists showed undergraduate students a series of digitally darkened or lightened photos of President Barack Obama last fall, and asked them which photos best represented him 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 [Newsweek]. The study will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to lead researcher Eugene Caruso, they 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 [NPR]. Caruso says their results indicate that the degree to which you see eye to eye with someone politically can alter your physical perception of them.

By controlling for bias against blacks, the study seems to indicate that race isn’t the issue, but simply how light or dark a person is, though it isn’t totally clear on that point. It also seems to buy in to the claim that Hillary Clinton artificially darkened an image of Obama, which wasn’t terribly widely believed. Anyway, the research’s most practical finding seems to be that devious political hacks don’t need to play games with candidates’ pictures because the voters are doing it themselves [Politico].

To see if their finding applied to politically ambiguous and unknown candidates, Caruso ran a similar experiment using altered photos of a fake candidate running for a board of education position. They also found that people shown darkened photos were less likely to say the would vote for the candidate, even if they agreed with them on roughly half of the issues. The researchers would like to see how the results of their Obama photo experiment would compare to a similar experiment with a conservative biracial candidate.

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Image: PNAS

  • yrag

    I think that if a person is open to liking someone else, they are more likely to see the similarities to themselves rather than the differences.

    It would be useful to know what percentage of the students poled were white, black etc.

    Further, I’d like to see how black students pro and con to Obama would perceive his color. Within that group it would also be interesting to learn how darker black students perceived Obama skin tone compared to lighter ones.

  • sly

    Another likely explanation is that the subjects were responding to a brighter and therefore more positive image vs. a darker and more negative image. At least the altered photos in this article are clearly entirely darkened or lightened images. A better study would just alter skin color tone as opposed to altering the entire picture itself.

    That’s just my two cents

  • Arki

    I agree with Sly. I think there are more variables to this than just the skin color.
    I would like to see if it works somehow for white people too.

  • JD

    I’d definitely like to see if this applies to white politicians. Other than a ‘oh that’s kind of interesting’ factor though, I fail to see what this type of study can accomplish.

    As far as seeing how this study pans out among all black participants, first you’d have to find a significant number that dislike Obama to get balanced results from the experiment. Approximately 98% of black voters as a demographic voted for Obama , so finding enough for a sample in this experiment might prove to be a very difficult task.

    Second, I’d have to ask has cultural conditioning been taken into account in the proposed experiment. Over the years blacks have attempted to look more white in order to gain more acceptance in American culture. They straightened their hair, changed their eye color, and bleached their skin, though the bleaching has become less popular over time. So basically, depending on the age of the person (more prevalent in the older generation), and how they were raised, a black person can have (even if its subconscious) a preference toward lighter skin, and associate that with beauty.

    To kind of back up the point above (while being to lazy to find and paste a link) experiments have been done already with young black girls and Barbie. They were given a black Barbie, and a classic Barbie to play with and the results showed that the girls tended to gravitate toward the white doll.

    Even if the experiment mentioned in this article did hold some real scientific value, I still would be skeptical of the results until I know whether cultural programming had been taken into account and in what way because it definitely influences people’s perceptions.

  • Blair

    Are those photos displayed the actual photos that were used? Because if they were, then I see a big flaw in the study. Respondents may simply have bee responding to the CONTEXT of the photo, rather than the lightness of Obama’s skin. The photo conservatives tended to pick depicts Obama as a professional; he’s wearing a suit, he’s POSING, and he’s in fron of the Capital building! Conversely, the photo liberals picked depicts Obama much more casually. That could be a huge factor.

  • Gwenny

    I have to agree with Blair. I think context is very important to consider here.

  • JimE

    JD, your remarks have nothing to do with this study. This is not a black vs white issue that you’re trying to turn it into. This is an issue of skin tone based on the researchers’ claim to have acquired the same results regardless of who they used as the politician. This is an issue of skin tone, not an issue of race! To do this same experiment using solely people of a certain racial background is useless information however. To conduct this particular experiment based on someone’s belief and moral similarities is useful. What you are positing is a completely unrelated and different type of experiment based mostly in sociology or socio-psychology. This experiment was psychological. It asked if someone’s beliefs altered their perception of a person appearance and if that correlates with a change in actions.

    Also, I’m not sure where you gathered your information about blacks but you’re not referring to blacks in the USA. Maybe other countries. It’s only in the current generation that having light skin is deemed as a positive quality. In the older black generations, to have light skin signified that you were not pure. Light skinned blacks were often ridiculed and laughed at as not belonging because of their light skin. It was a sign of disgrace and honestly, even today it is not seen as a positive quality in black culture.

    In older generations, instead of someone saying they had white ancestors, they would claim to have Native American ancestry because that combination was seen as acceptable. The skin bleaching is also way off the mark. That is not and has not been a common African American issue. It has been an African issue and the use of complexion changers is still pandemic there and in Spanish dominant Latin American countries. However, long hair has been an issue but that does not apply to this research. The research you are referring to is the Clark study doll test and it was responsible for the court case Brown vs. Board of Education overturning the prior Plessy vs Ferguson court case. Please get your information together before you present it as fact.

    Blair and Gwenny, although I have not seen the photos that were presented, to claim that the context of the picture would be the same for all possible politicians the participants viewed seems implausible. It implies the researches consciously or unconsciously selected only casual pictures for the lighter photos and vice-versa.

    That said, the researchers claim to be addressing skin tone but they want to use another bi/multi racial candidate. A bi/multi racial politician will always have to walk a tight rope trying to balance between two or more races. They need to clarify if the are looking for racial, complexion or perceived perceptions of a candidate’s race by changing these photos.

  • Sarah

    Interesting experiment… needs a bit of tweaking, though. It would have been more accurate (I think) if the same picture was used, with the skin pigmentation the only variable being altered. Background colors may play a role in our perceptions, so… I hope this kind of experiment is tried again, with a few minor upgrades. :)


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