Looking the Part

Cues as simple as what people wear affect how we perceive their race

The perception of race can be altered by cues of social status as simple as the clothes a person wears, according to a new study by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Tufts, Stanford and the University of California, Irvine. 

More than a simple reaction to facial features, racial categorization represents a complex and subtle process powerfully shaped by context and the stereotypes and prejudices we already hold, researchers say.

In the experiments, study participants were asked to determine the race of computerized faces. Faces accompanied by business attire were more likely to be seen as white, while faces accompanied by janitor attire were more likely to be seen as black.

A hand-tracking technique, which recorded participants’ hand trajectories while using a mouse to select a racial category on the computer screen, also revealed far more subtle influences of stereotypical status cues.

Even when participants ultimately decided that a face with low-status attire was white or a face with high-status attire was black, they showed that they were still drawn to the other race that was stereotypically tied to the status cue by moving the mouse slightly closer to that response before making their final decision.

The perception of race can be altered by cues to social status as simple as the clothes a person wears.

“The study shows how the perception of a face is always a compromise between the visual cues before our eyes and the baggage we bring to the table, like the stereotypes we hold,” says the study’s lead author, Jonathan B. Freeman, G12, a doctoral candidate in psychology in Tufts’ Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The paper, “Looking the Part: Social Status Cues Shape Race Perception” appears in PLoS ONE, published online Sept. 26. 

The results also highlight one of the possible mechanisms through which subtle and unconscious racism continues to occur.

“Racial stereotypes are powerful enough to trickle down to affect even basic visual processing of other people, systematically skewing the way we view our social world,” says Freeman.

Status cues had the largest effects for the faces that were most racially ambiguous, a notable finding given recent and projected growth of the multiracial population in the United States.

Other Tufts researchers contributing to the paper were Matthias Scheutz, an associate professor of computer science in the School of Engineering, and Nalini Ambady, who was a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences when the research was done and is now professor of psychology at Stanford.

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