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New research explains why we see Barack Obama as “black” rather than “white”

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Thursday 25 November 2010 9:32am

Why do people tend to see biracial individuals such as Barack Obama as belonging to the minority group in their parentage rather than the majority one? According to new studies led by a University of Otago psychology researcher, this phenomenon — known as “hypodescent” — can be explained by underlying mechanisms in how human brains learn and categorise groups.

Otago Department of Psychology Associate Professor Jamin Halberstadt says that previously, the hypodescent phenomenon was presumed to be a product of one of several motivations: for example, to deny rights to minority group members, or to grant rights to restore historical inequities.

“Through our face perception research we show that hypodescent need not be motivated by prejudice or anything else, and that the same minority-biased perception of mixed-race individuals can emerge as a simple result of how our brains learn new groups,” Associate Professor Halberstadt says.

In experiments newly published in the journal Psychological Science, he and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, and Indiana University investigated whether an attention model of how people categorise groups could explain hypodescent.

According to “Attention Theory”, people learn new groups by paying attention to the things that distinguish them from the groups they already know. As a result of this strategy, the new group’s distinctive features become strongly associated with that group and are likely to be very influential in judgments of which group an ambiguous member belongs to, he says.

“Because minority groups, being less numerous by definition, tend to be encountered and learned after majority groups, in theory they too should be closely associated with the features that distinguish them from the majority, such as their skin colour.

“So when people encounter biracial individuals, who exhibit features of both majority and minority groups, their minority features are more influential. In other words, Barack Obama is “black” because, due to most people’s learning history, his dark skin is especially strongly associated with that category,” he says.

To demonstrate the workings of Attention Theory, Associate Professor Halberstadt and colleagues undertook experiments that asked students with different learning histories to classify ambiguous blends of majority and minority faces.

Their first experiment required 36 native Chinese and 46 native (Caucasian) New Zealanders to quickly classify images of Chinese-Caucasian face blends in terms of their racial identity. The researchers expected the different exposure to Chinese and Caucasian faces in childhood to affect how biracial faces were perceived in adulthood, with the Caucasian participants more likely to classify ambiguous faces as Chinese.

In a second experiment involving 89 students, the researchers created artificial majority and minority groups for the participants to learn by varying the frequency with which different arbitrary groups (all Caucasian) were encountered on the computer.

Associate Professor Halberstadt says that the outcome of both studies was that participants classified ambiguous faces as being members of the groups they had learned second.

“So, regardless of whether learning order was due to childhood exposure or to laboratory experience, and even when the group membership was arbitrary and not racially based, this remained the key factor.”

These results are important in showing that what looks like racially motivated judgment can sometimes be a natural consequence of how our brain’s information processing has evolved, he says.

“While motivational, political, sociological, and economic factors likely play a role in hypodescent, our findings indicate that these are not necessary to explain why people see biracial individuals as minorities.”

Associate Professor Halberstadt’s co-authors on the study are Steven J. Sherman at Indiana University, and Jeffrey Sherman at the University of California, Davis.

For more information, contact

Associate Professor
Jamin Halberstadt
Department of Psychology
University of Otago
Tel 64 3 479 8289
Website: Department of Psychology

Publication details

Psychological Science
Why Barack Obama Is Black: A Cognitive Account of Hypodescent Jamin Halberstadt, Steven J. Sherman, and Jeffrey W. Sherman
doi: 10.1177/0956797610390383

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