Skip to main content

Shades of Candidates to Come

How can the American electorate be post-racial when even the shading of skin affects decision-making?

Time Magazine infamously darkened the face of O.J. Simpson on a 1994 cover, delivering what seemed to be the guilty verdict The Juice's own jurors would later shrug off. The image was so blatantly doctored (particularly in contrast with the same mug that week on the cover of Newsweek) that critics instantly cried foul. Time, they claimed, was trying to pull one over on a public that wasn't fooled.

It turns out, however, that many of us are susceptible to tying judgment to even subtler visual cues, including with one of the most famous faces of all — Barack Obama's.

In a study evoking the O.J. flap, researchers presented undergraduate students at the University of Chicago with a series of photos of the then-future president. One was lightened, one darkened and the other left untouched.

The subjects were then asked which image they thought was most representative of the candidate. The results were both unsurprising and unpleasant — at least if we like to think we're as post-racial as we'd hoped we'd be after Obama's election. Students who identified themselves as liberal more often selected the lighter photo, while conservatives were more likely to pick the darkened one.

So what does this mean? Americans are having a hard time bridging on issues from health care to economic policy, and partisanship even colors how we look at physical objects and people. We can't even approach a photo of a biracial politician the same way.

"We heard during the campaign people saying, 'I don't like Obama because of this or that,'" said Eugene Caruso, a University of Chicago behavioral science professor and lead author of the study, along with Nicole Mead and Emily Balcetis. "Some people were even willing to admit, 'Look I'm just not comfortable with him because he's different from me.' And yet, for the most part, for people, the differences in these perceptual representations are not really conscious."

The research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggests the media may influence — intentionally or not — how voters see a candidate through simple images. News directors and magazine editors suffer from the same unconscious biases as everyone else. (For a slightly different take on this phenomenon, recall accusations that Hillary Clinton's campaign intentionally darkened a TV ad attacking Obama.)

While voters supporting Obama were more likely to associate him with the lighter image, Caruso speculates that the reverse may also be true: that seeing darkened images of people may cause us to like them less. (He also could only speculate on how the skin tone of a voter would additionally affect one's perception of the politician, as the number of black students in this study wasn't statistically significant.)

So where do these associations originate? Are they a by-product of racial history in America, or do they stem from even broader narratives about light and dark, good and evil?

"It's a little bit hard to pinpoint where it all starts," Caruso said. "Certainly there is this long history, particularly in Western society, of associating lightness with good and darkness with bad. This extends to our metaphors today: The good guys in movies, the angels are wearing white, while bad guys and death are associated with darkness."

The findings are rooted in the biracial ambiguity of Obama's identity. Similar tests in the study on unambiguously white John McCain, and unambiguously black Michael Steele, offered none of the same results.

It's hard to bring bias to a question with a clear answer. As Caruso explained, "how many siblings do you have?" is a pretty unambiguous question. On the other hand, "how many friends do you have?" is a murkier one; your answer may depend on everything from how you define the term to how recently you've checked your Facebook feed.

With that in mind, it seems unlikely we'll have the opportunity to apply the study's findings to another biracial political candidate of Obama's stature any time soon, although coverage and reaction to Tiger Woods might shed some additional light.

"But I do think this can have implications for all sorts of decisions, not only for other political decisions," Caruso said. "Even in things as simple as hiring a job candidate or evaluating a potential romantic partner — any situation in which the visual representation of the person is part of the evaluation — we think these biases may hold up."

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.