Study Proves Subconscious Bias Against Dark-Skinned Blacks

What experiment did researchers do to produce these results and how do their findings line up with previous studies?

By Chris Hoenig

Study Proves Subconscious Bias Against Dark-Skinned BlacksWhen a person knows a Black person is intelligent, he or she is more likely to subconsciously believe that person has lighter skin than the person really does, proving a subconscious bias against dark-skinned Blacks, according to a new study.

Researchers at San Francisco State University divided study participants—125 students at the university who received partial course credit for taking part—into two groups, subliminally ingraining the word “educated” into the minds of one group and the words “ignorant” and “athletic” into the minds of the other. Participants were all then shown a picture of the same Black man. Later, after going through a distraction exercise, they went through a process where they were shown four different pictures or groups of pictures, which included the original picture and/or up to six others, each one altered to change the skin tone—three were lighter (by 25, 37 and 50 percent), three were darker (by the same proportions). After seeing each picture/group of pictures, participants had to identify whether the original photo had been on the screen.

The results spoke for themselves, with the students in the “educated” subset more likely to not only select the wrong photo, but roughly twice as likely to select the picture that was 50 percent lighter than the original. Overall, they were 20 percent more likely to choose a picture that had been lightened than the “ignorant” and “athletic” subsets, and only a fraction more likely to choose one of the three that had been darkened. The “ignorant” and “athletic” subsets were the most likely, by about 20–25 percent, to choose the picture with the darkest skin.

Experiment 1 Results

“Black individuals who defy social stereotypes might not challenge social norms sufficiently but rather may be remembered as lighter, perpetuating status-quo beliefs,” the study explained.

“Whereas encountering a Black individual after being primed with the word ‘educated’ might pose a challenge to existing beliefs, encountering a Black individual after being primed with the word ‘ignorant’ would likely not require resolution or a misremembering of skin tone to align with these beliefs.”

In order to prove their findings, the researchers ran the experiment again with 35 more students, who also received partial course credit for participating. This time, the researchers removed the term “athletic,” which had brought results very similar to the “ignorant” group in the first experiment, keeping only “educated” and “ignorant” for the study. In addition to the Black man’s photo, they also added an image of a red fox and a computer-generated greeble, both of which also had corresponding lightened and darkened photos (by 25, 37 and 50 percent, just as the man’s photo had been altered). The second study reinforced the results of the first, only this time the participants from the “educated” subset were even more likely to choose one of the three lightened images of the man. The study also found the bias applies only to humans; neither the fox nor the greeble had any significant changes based on the altering of the images.

Experiment 2 Results

A deeper dive into the study’s results also found that the bias exists across all races and ethnicities. “It is pervasive across and within diverse ethnic and racial groups, including whites, Latinos, and Blacks,” according to the study’s authors.

Researchers say the findings back up previous studies that suggest stronger negative stereotypes are applied to Blacks who have darker skin. These negative stereotypes, according to those other studies, have resulted in longer prison terms for darker-skinned Black men and women.

The study’s findings are published in SAGE Journals.

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  • It starts early. In the U.S. you will have a hard time finding books for babies, infants, toddlers, and children of all ages that have pictures of dark-skinned people. When there is someone of color, they are almost always light-skinned. We would do well to have pictures in those books that show people of all hues so as to put it in our brains that people of all hues are good.

  • I disagree with the study’s design method as I do not feel it supports the purposed notion…then to add a fox and a greeble is simple an insult to the intelligence. The study does not describe the ethnic proportions of study participants, their socio-economic status or level of intelligence (they attend a ‘state’ university…they could very well be ‘pre-sumed’ to have lower IQs and lower ability to rationalize, differentiate, etc.) amongst other factors to ‘standardize’ the study results across the population at large. And although, I was not a subject participant neither do I know the subjective / objective variables used in the study design…when I viewed the range of dark to light images of the ‘black’ male…IMO the ‘darker’ image was more appealing while the lighter images resembled cartoon caracatures or poor black / white image modality…nothing more. I hence found the ‘darker’ image more; attractive, inviting for conversation, engagable, and overall representative of someone of higher intelligence and social class. Those who thought differently… prior ideas of inferiority & race is a major factor with the simple explanation that the caucasian person chose a complexion closer to their own (regardless of their self perceived intellect or ‘objectively’ (this has extreme faults) determined intellect) or darker race individuals’ internalizing perpetuated false stereotypes and accusations. We do not know those study participants’ background, their past experiences (positive or negative), etc. There are too many factors and confounding factors that would come into effect…which makes the study extremely poor and of absolutely no reliabilty or substantiability. Why was this study performed? What benefit would the ‘results’ serve? How will the surmised results be utilized to dispel such societal predijudices against ‘darker’ people? So…the results were used as an explanation as to why ‘darker’ individuals receive more jail time or harsher sentences. Again a stereotype is supported that individuals of a racial / ethnic group of varying hues…have a higher propensity to be in prison or jail. It does not address the judicial system or the socio-economic environment ..both of which have profound effects on a skewed prison population. The study could have investigated whether ‘darker’ people must work harder and out perform to achieve the same level of success as ‘lighter’ people who are of lesser intelligence with fewer capabilities. The study has a tremendous amounts of faults and capable of perpetuating feelings of inferiority (in weak minded easily influenced / misled darker and lighter individuals). I question the motives and especially the intelligence of the researchers themselves. I’d further ascertain that the study is full of $hit and that research support has been wasted…not surprisingly based on history, on such subject matter.

    • @Mortan. Well said. I could not have said it better. I am in total agreement with you.

  • well, it’s nice to know… I mean I think that in general white people and white spanish people tend to dub black people as inferior or less intelligent… ugh… it’s so annoying, right? but then, who really cares what they think about us? The moment it stops mattering what they think, the more easily we as a people will be able to progress. It’s not like it matters what we think of them, right?

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