A recent study just published in PNAS, hit the mainstream news and attendant blogsphere circuit yesterday. In the study, as most of you must have heard by now, the authors (Eugene Caruso, Chicago Booth School of Business; Nicole L. Mead, Tilburg University Marketing and Emily Balcetis, NYU Psychology) show that respondents who are shown a picture of a biracial political candidate tend to choose doctored photos of that candidate—some “ligthened” and other one’s “darkened”—as “most representative” of that candidate depending on how close they are to that candidate’s political views. When there is a match, the candidate is seen as better represented by his lighter self, and when there is a mismatch, the candidate is seen as better represented by his darker alter-ego (of course this is an experiment so exposure to stimuli is randomized).
The study is in the press because the authors of the study were smart enough to not only use a nondescript biracial candidate (they did that in study 1, the (poor?) guy’s name is Jarome Iginla, “a 32-year old biracial male whose father was a Black Nigerian and whose mother was a White American.”), but then (in study’s 2 and 3) they selected the most famous biracial candidate in the history of modern democratic politics. They also planned well, since study 2 was conducted just before the 2008 election and study 3 was conducted right after. What they find is that the “photoshop” effect was replicated with Obama and that the extent to which participants judged that a lightened photograph better represented Obama’s “true essence”* predicted both voting intentions (study 2, before the election) and restrospective reports of actual voting behavior (study 3, post-election), controlling for both standard lib-con placement and (implicit and explicit) racial attitudes (the last of which were surprisingly impotent in predicting anything in this study; sorry Larry).
This is a very cool study, the authors have pretty big substantive (not just statistically) significant effects and this could probably be easily replicated. The effect is real and (given the news attention) spectacular. The issue is of course interpretation. I believe that the main interpretation that’s circulating in the news report (and which the authors don’t appear to be doing much to combat) is a (slight) misinterpretation. Most news reports are blabbing about how political views alter or skews the perception of the photograph. In fact the study is literally called “Political Partisanship Influences Perception of Biracial Candidates Skin Tone.” But while this title was obviously designed with the press-release in mind, this is not what the study is actually about. In fact, Marc Ambider’s summary at the Atlantic is actually a more accurate characterization of the effect: “Lighter Skin, More Like Me.”
For the key issue in this study is not “partisanship” but the extent to which you rate the candidates view as similar to your own. The confusion stems from the fact that this was explicit in Study 1 (where candidates where informed about the unknown biracial candiates view and then had to judge how representative these views where of their own) but became implicit in studies 2 and 3, since there all that you needed to know was the respondent’s lib-con placement (Obama’s was presumed to be known of course).
But most importantly (and I’m sure the Psychologist in the study knows this very well) this was not a perception task (e.g. in the psycho-physical sense, “estimate how dark or light this photograph is…”). It was a judgment task (“how well the photographs represent…”), so “partisanship is not skewing perception in the raw sense. In judgment (like judging distance) perception is involved but it is more complicated than partisanship making you “see” a photograph as lighter or darker. In fact, the best explanation for this effect in my view, is Dan Kahneman’s “attribute substitution” story. All of the elements for an attribute substitution effect are there: (1) an ill-defined, loosely bounded judgment task (like judging distance), (2) a readily available (cognitively and affectively accessible) cue that can be used as a heuristic (the relative distance between the person and the candidate in terms of political views) in order to produce a judgment.
So I propose that the effect occurs in two steps:
1) First, we substitute the (impossible to define) “true essence” of the candidate with the more accessible “how close is this candidate from my values?” heuristic: close to me=good essence, far from me=bad essence. This simplifies the problem to one of being asked to judge which picture best represents a bad essence (if candidate disagrees with my views) or a good essence (if candidate agrees).
2) We then answer this (more answerable) question with a second substitution, using a simple (and culturally entrenched heuristic [e.g. see Gandolf's robe]) dark=bad and light=good); both steps occur at an implicit level of course. So there is not effect of partisanship on perception. The partisanship effect is cognitive/affective, and occurs during the first substitution (when judging “distance from self”). The second effect is “cultural” and (you don’t have to see the scene in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X when the title character goes through a dictionary, or read Durkheim and Mauss’ Primitive Classification to get this), thoroughly intuitive (e.g. Dark Magic, etc.).
*The actual prompt is as follows:
…participants read instructions describing that photographs can differ in how well they ‘‘represent a politician’’ and capture his or her ‘‘true essence.’’ They then rated how much each of three photographs—one lightened, one unaltered, and one darkened—represented the candidate on scales ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (a great deal).