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White or Black? Conservatives, Liberals See Faces Differently

• June 05, 2013 • 4:00 AM

President Barack Obama is of mixed white and black racial heritage. (PHOTO: PETE SOUZA)

New research finds people on the political right are quicker to classify a racially ambiguous face as black.

Did you notice that mixed-race gentleman who passed you on the sidewalk yesterday? During the split second as he walked by, did he register in your mind as black or white?

Disturbing new research suggests the answer to that question may depend on your political ideology.

In three experiments, “we found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to categorize a racially ambiguous person as black than white,” a research team led by New York University psychologist Amy Krosch writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Intriguingly, this dynamic disappeared when the study participants—white Americans—were told they were judging Canadian faces. The tendency for those on the right to more quickly categorize someone as “black” only occurred when they were evaluating their fellow countrymen.

“Conservatives exhibit stronger preferences for order, structure, and closure, and greater intolerance of ambiguity in comparison with liberals.”

As the number of mixed-race Americans rapidly grows, the issue of how they are perceived is of more than academic interest. There is no shortage of evidence of continuing discrimination against blacks, such as a new report of racial bias in arrests for marijuana possession. Categorization comes with consequences.

Krosch and her colleagues describe three experiments. The first two featured 31 and 71 participants, respectively, all recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. They indicated their political ideology on a seven-point scale (extremely liberal to extremely conservative.) The participants in the first study were white; the second featured a smattering of non-whites, but no African Americans.

All were asked to quickly label 110 male faces as black or white. The images were created by morphing two “parent” faces, one white and one black, and varying the degree to which each was represented.

In both experiments, the point at which a face was equally likely to be labeled black or white occurred before the point the two faces actually converged. (In the second study, it occurred well before.) This suggests one does not need to have 50 percent African American features to be labeled black.

What’s more, this tendency was exacerbated by ideology. Specifically, “conservatism was associated with a lower threshold for categorizing racially ambiguous faces as black,” the researchers report.

The third experiment, featuring 62 participants (all white), was identical to the first two, except that half the faces were identified as “Canadian.” They were presented against a red background, while “Americans” were seen against a blue background.

The results: “Political conservatism was associated with a lower threshold for categorizing racially ambiguous faces as black when it came to American, but not Canadian, faces.” Whatever impulse that led conservatives to think “black” was negated when they were told they were dealing with residents of a different country.

“There are several possible explanations” for these findings, the researchers write. “Conservatives exhibit stronger preferences for order, structure, and closure, and greater intolerance of ambiguity in comparison with liberals.” Thus they “might be more motivated to resolve racial ambiguity, and to resolve it in the most common or culturally accessible manner.”

Beyond that, Krosch and her colleagues suspect this reflects a phenomenon coined by New York University psychologist John Jost (a co-author of the paper): system justification theory. The term refers to the tendency, which is particularly pronounced among conservatives, to rationalize the sociopolitical system one inhabits as inherently fair and just.

In that context, these results “may reflect, among other things, the motivation to defend and uphold traditional racial divisions that are part of the historical legacy of the United States,” writes the research team, which also included Leslie Berntsen, David Amodio and Jay Van Bavel.

On the other hand, the researchers note, liberals and conservatives may simply focus their attention on different facial features, with those on the right more alert to any that deviate from the “norm” (which is to say, European ancestry).

“If so,” they write, “this would suggest that ideology may not only shape social judgments and behavior, but literally how people see the world around them.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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