Sunday, 2 March 2014

Educated Light Skin & Ignorant Dark Skin? Stereotypes And Skin Tone Bias

Skin tone bias, a phenomenon that is prevalent among different ethnicities, is the tendency to judge people based on their skin tone lightness or darkness. And usually the tendency is, the darker, the more negative the stereotypes and the discrimination that are associated (e.g. longer prison sentences). Not every individual easily fits into the artificial and simplified black-white categories. The black-white dichotomy, the construction of two poles, shows its flexible and arbitrary approach when, for instance, black-white ambiguous faces are to be categorised: Ambiguous faces that are categorised as white are perceived as being lighter.

The first day of desegregation at Fort Myer Elementary School in Fort Myer, VA on 8 September 1954

In their study, Ben-Zeev et al. (2014) investigated the link between stereotypic (i.e. expectancy-congruent) priming vs. counter-stereotypic (i.e. expectency-violating) priming and (mis)remembering a person's skin tone. The researchers used an unambiguous black male target face. Participants were either primed with a stereotypic word ("ignorant", "athletic") or a counter-stereotypic word ("educated"). The subliminal prime was immediately followed by the unambiguous black man's face. Afterwards, participants completed a recognition task. The authors proceeded on the assumption that the counter-stereotypic word "educated" would lead to whitening of the face in memory and assimilate the information to the stereotype while the word "ignorant" would not lead to any distortions since it is congruent with societal expectations.

In 1959, Prince Edward County Schools decided to close all schools, so they did not have to desegregate. No public school was open for five years. Meanwhile the "white" community opened a private school where all the "white" students went to (via).

So what happens when the words "ignorant", "educated" or "athletic" are presented in 40-point Helvetica for 30 ms followed by seven different skin tone variations of a black man's face? One result of the study suggests that a counter-stereotypic (i.e. educated) black male is likely to be remembered as "whiter" which supports the skin tone memory bias. This tendency is explained with "the mind's striving for cognitive consistency" and "the attempt to resolve an incompatible cognition". In other words, an educated black male challenges the sterotypic-driven mind.

School segregation protest

Ben-Zeev, A., Dennehy, T. C., Goodrich, R. I., Kolarik, B. S. & Geisler, M. W. (2014). When an "Educated" Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind's Eye: Evidence for a Skin Tone Memory Bias. SAGE Open, January-March, 1-9.
Photos via and via and via


  1. You're posting like supergirl! Thank you so much.

  2. ...those were days.
    Those were the days!

    1. Well said, Erin. And how much history was written by the activists...

  3. Super interesting study, Supergirl. Thanks for the share.

    1. I immediately got used to my new name ;-)
      Thank you Kenneth and Karen!