Nov. 23, 2009 -- A picture can be worth a thousand words. But, what if the image has been altered to incite a specific response?
A study released today draws a connection between political partisanship and the skin tone of political candidates. Researchers from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago suggest people believe that a lighter skin tone is more representative of a candidate with whom they are politically aligned than a politician with a darker complexion.
"We found that people not only 'darken' those with whom they disagree, but also 'lighten' those with whom they agree," states the article, "Political partisanship influences perception of biracial candidates' skin tone," by Eugene Caruso, Nicole Mead, and Emily Balcetis, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Caruso, an assistant professor of behavioral science at Booth, was part of a team of a researchers who asked participating undergraduate students to identify his or her political affinity and then select the most representative photo of President Barack Obama from a set of images. Participants were shown three photos: the original image, a lightened version and a darkened version.
"The more people who thought that the lightened photos were representative of Obama, the more likely they were to report having voted for him in the election," Caruso said. "And that held as we controlled for political beliefs and attitudes."
Dr. Melanie Killen, a professor of Human Development at the University of Maryland, is skeptical of the study's findings, saying the conclusions drawn are too broad.
"It does tell us that people are aware that there are associations with race, that it can be positive or negative and that in the political arena it is important to consider," said Killen. "But, there's a lot of complexity to these issues and when I read an article like this I get worried. People are aware that there are more negative and positive associations with skin tone and darker is negative and white is more positive. What do we do with the attitudes? Do they use it and manipulate it or is it that there are these associations out there and they understand that?"
Diana Owen, associate professor of political science at Georgetown University, told ABC News the study hints at a valid point, but, "I'm not so sure that the way they carried out the research with the manipulations of the images is particularly convincing."
The researchers used various photographs of the biracial candidates and created both lightened and darkened versions of the pictures. In each image of Obama, he is smiling but shown in different poses, some more casual than others.
"The images are fundamentally different images in terms of the way that the person is posed, I think that was a confounding factor since the sample size was small and since there weren't enough non-white participants to control for more variables."
However, Caruso pointed out that despite the small sampling size, the study controlled for the changing variables.
"It could be that people respond differently to more casual poses than to more formal poses, but we found that it wasn't the case," said Caruso. "That's why we systematically created different versions of the same photo and then tested statistically to make sure that skin tone was the only variable that was having any effect."
Bias, Prejudice and Attitudes
The skin tone in images came up during the Democratic primaries of the 2008 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton's campaign came under fire from the liberal blogosphere for putting out a television ad attacking Obama that some believed portrayed the candidate with a darker skin tone. Likewise, Time Magazine was once criticized for darkening O.J. Simpson's skin color for its cover picture.
Killen also expressed concern about the small sample size of the study and its failure to address the background of the participants.
"It's not about 'people' -- it's about the white majority, high status," said Killen, a developmental psychologist. "It's one thing if you're looking at eye blinking or memory in a study, but you're looking at issues of race and ethnicity. Don't you need to know the ethnicity of the participants?"
When asked by ABC News about the race and ethnicity of the participants, Caruso acknowledged the limitation.
"We did ask participants to indicate their race at the end of the study and we were hoping that we'd be able to test for differences. Unfortunately, fewer than 10 percent of our participants identified as being black, so we didn't have enough power to test between black and non-black participants," Caruso said.
Caruso maintains that the study brings further fuel to the field of research to explore how political beliefs can effect one's perception of the world.
"Part of my research interest more generally is in how people come to understand the perception of someone who might be different than them." he said. "People generally have a hard time coming to grips with or coming to understand how someone's attitude differs from their own. So this was a step to see some of the depth of some of that difficulty."