More Than Skin Color Determines Perceived Race: UC Irvine Research

When it comes to determining the race of a stranger, our minds see more than skin color. That's the conclusion of a study co-authored by UCI sociologist Andrew Penner, which was really quite simple when it came to the research. Viewers were shown images of the same man in business attire and a janitor's uniform. Photos of a different man were added to the mix, as were those of women. Above the photos were boxes marked "white" and "black" so the viewers could assign the race of each person shown. You can imagine what the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation-funded research found.


Tracking the movements of each viewer's mouse as it selected the race of the model, the researchers discovered that, initially, those in the business clothing were most often perceived to be white, while those in the janitor uniforms were usually ranked as black, despite the person in the respective photos being the same person of the same race.

Keep in mind that the person being tested may have ultimately chosen the correct race of the model. What the researchers were after was that initial assumption. The pattern grew more pronounced as faces became more racially ambiguous, the study concluded.

"Together, the findings show how stereotypes interact with physical cues to shape person categorization, and suggest that social and contextual factors guide the perception of race," reads the abstract of the study "Looking the Part," which was posted Sept. 26 on PLos ONE.

Penner's co-authors were psychology graduate student Jonathan B. Freeman, and Matthias Scheutz, computer science associate professor at Tufts University; Nalini Ambady, psychology professor, and Aliya Saperstein, sociology assistant professor, at Stanford.

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