Study shows skin tone is not the major determinant of perceived racial identity

Aug 31, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- How do we determine the racial background of a person that we have just met? The facial characteristics of various racial groups differ in many respects, ranging from the colour of their skin to the physical shape and size of their features.

Given the wide range of differences, it would seem logical that we consider a variety of those factors before determining someone’s racial background. Yet amongst these many differences, studies have consistently shown that most people rate as the most influential factor when it comes to determining someone’s race.

Two Macquarie University researchers, the Department of Psychology’s Dr Kevin Brooks and PhD student Scott Gwinn, decided to challenge the commonly held that skin tone is the primary determining factor when it comes to race.

Their study, published recently in the journal Perception, found that surprisingly, skin tone contributes very little to perceived race. Instead facial morphology - or the form and structure of the face - is the dominant cue in determining race.

Gwinn said the results of the study came as a surprise given conventional assumptions about how we determine race. They also call into question our whole labeling system used to classify a person’s race.

"When you think about the racial labels ‘Black’ and ‘White’, they specifically refer to skin tone, but we found that skin tone hardly plays a role. It appears as though the structure of the face and the shape of features are the main determining factors used by people to determine race,” he said.

Brooks and Gwinn’s study used two groups of observers looking at a series of facial photos where a central face appeared lightened or darkened.

Half of the participants were asked for a rating of skin tone, while the other half were asked to say how typically African or European the central face appeared to be. Although the difference in perceived skin tone was clear in the ratings made by the first group, the second group showed that there was no difference in ratings of race.

"This was quite contradictory to what people have previously thought because we were able to show that the features and characteristics of someone’s face have a greater impact on someone’s perception of race than skin tone,” Brooks said.

Explore further: Self-regulation intervention boosts school readiness of at-risk children, study shows

Provided by Macquarie University

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A face by any other name: Seeing racial bias

Oct 28, 2008

If Barack Obama had taken his mother's surname and kept his childhood nickname, American voters might literally see "Barry Dunham" as a quite different presidential candidate, a new study suggests. A name significantly changes ...

Black and white is not always a clear distinction

Dec 08, 2008

Is race defined by appearance, or can a person also be colored by socioeconomic status? A new study finds that Americans who are unemployed, incarcerated or impoverished today are more likely to be classified and identified ...

Recommended for you

Brains transform remote threats into anxiety

Nov 21, 2014

Modern life can feel defined by low-level anxiety swirling through society. Continual reports about terrorism and war. A struggle to stay on top of family finances and hold onto jobs. An onslaught of news ...

Mental disorders due to permanent stress

Nov 21, 2014

Activated through permanent stress, immune cells will have a damaging effect on and cause changes to the brain. This may result in mental disorders. The effects of permanent stress on the immune system are studied by the ...

Could there be a bright side to depression?

Nov 21, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—A group of researchers studying the roots of depression has developed a test that leads them closer to the idea that depression may actually be an adaptation meant to help people cope with ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.