President Obama seems to have an image problem. Literally. Apparently, our visual perception of his skin tone depends on whether we like or revile his politics. Yes, our actual color-gradation impression of his melanin pigmentation is influenced by our subjective opinion. This is news, because it suggests that not all Americans are seeing the 44th President in the same hue of Technicolor.
(President Obama at right, in what’s hopefully an untouched, pigmentation-neutrally lit photo)
In a study to be released by Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences
, Eugene Caruso, a social psychologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois and co-author of this paper, states that our predisposed bias to a person may alter the actual reality of what they look like. In Caruso’s study, undergraduate students were shown a series of photographs of Obama. Some photos had been retouched to lighten the President’s skin tone, others had been darkened, and some were untouched. The students were queried as to which ones best represented him. Self-professed liberals veered toward the photographs of the President with a lightened skin tone, whereas conservatives picked the photos of Obama with the darkened skin tone.
The study strongly suggests peoples’ biases filters their visual perception of Obama, layers it with context, and only then does our consciousness form a cognitive assessment. It should be noted that in the study, liberals were five times more likely to choose the photos of Obama with lighter skin, as opposed to conservatives who were only twice as likely to pick the photos of the darker-skinned Obama.
Does this mean liberals see Obama as more ‘white?’ Does this mean conservatives see Obama as more ‘black?’ Albeit by a lesser degree than liberals seeing Obama as less ‘black’…or was it more ‘white’? What about independents? Would Obama’s skin tone be somewhere in between? This is really, really confusing.
In an interview with Newsweek
, Caruso states:
“We expect to be objective, but if we can’t even agree on a picture sitting before us, it
suggests that there are still deeper challenges to overcome before we can truly understand the perspective of someone we disagree with.”
Judging by the comments about this study on NPR
and Science Now
, there are serious questions to be raised about whether there were other variables taken into account which could have skewed the choices, and which had nothing to do with political orientation. But in essence, there’s something incredibly disturbing about research that strongly implies our sense impressions are being filtered by subconscious cues even before we get a chance to actively think about them. This goes on all the time, of course; the whole concept of advertising is predicated on visual cues to manipulate us into forming an impression based on complete drivel. Like sugary type-2 diabetes-inducing cereals being labelled by leprechauns as "part of this complete breakfast."
Might race have not been the motivating factor in the choices of the study participants? Could liberals have chosen the lighter-skinned photos because they were simply smitten by the perceived glow of Obama’s halo? Did conservatives gravitate to the darker-skinned Obama photos because they simply assumed his ambient light was being blocked by Clouds of the Apocalypse? This study could open a barrel of worms. Everything might be up for photo manipulation. What’s next, Newsweek darkening a photograph of O.J. Simpson to make him look more threatening?