Researchers from San Francisco State University have coined a new term that brings to light cultural biases and skin tone.  “Skin Tone Memory Bias” is when black men who are associated with being intelligent are often remembered as having lighter skin.   It’s these biases that researchers feel can have grave implications when it comes to cultural beliefs and race.

The study, which was published in the journal Sage Open, was led by researcher Avi Ben-Zeev.  “When a black stereotypic expectancy is violated – herein, encountering an educated Black male – this culturally incompatible information is resolved by distorting this person’s skin tone to be lighter in memory and therefore to be perceived as ‘whiter’,” Ben-Zeev said. 

Researchers conducted the study,  which reads like a modern-day “Doll Experiment”, with 160 university students. In the first stage of the study, participants were subliminally exposed to one of two words – ignorant or educated. This was immediately followed by a photograph of a black man’s face.


The second part of the study had participants look at photos that depicted the same face – the original, three with lighter skin and three with darker skin. They were then asked to pick which picture was the one they had seen originally.

Findings showed that participants primed with the word “educated” showed more memory errors in picking lighter skin-toned pictures than those who had subliminally seen with word “ignorant”.

Ben-Zeev said: “Uncovering a skin tone memory bias, such that an educated Black man becomes lighter in the mind’s eye, has grave implications. We already know from past researchers about the disconcerting tendency to harbour more negative attitudes about people with darker complexions (e.g., the darker a Black male is, the more aggressive he is perceived to be). A skin tone memory bias highlights how memory protects this ‘darker is more negative’ belief by distorting counter-stereotypic Black individuals’ skin tone to appear lighter and perhaps to be perceived as less threatening.”

The full study can be read here: http://sgo.sagepub.com/content/4/1/2158244013516770

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