A new study shows the brain may revise memory to conform to preconceived notions, eliminating incongruity that might confuse or tax the mind with regard to highly complex issues like race.
Investigators in Los Angeles found that study participants remembered an African-American man as “whiter” in skin tone, a token member of a weaker racial group with lower socioeconomic status, on average. Avi Ben-Zeev, a professor at San Francisco State University, led a study of 160 college students, which tested the phenomenon of “skin tone bias” in memory.
"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 in a statement. In essence, a black man identified to study participants as “educated” was remembered later with lighter-toned skin, a revision of memory conforming to quick mental assessments based on probability and likelihood.
In the experiment’s first phase, college students were exposed briefly to two words flashed subliminally: “ignorant” or "educated.” Those subliminal exposures were immediately followed by headshots of an African-American, followed later by seven variations of a photograph, including the original shot as well as three with darker skin tones and three with lighter.
But when asked to choose the photograph of the man they’d earlier seen, participants primed by the subliminal word “educated” chose lighter versions of the successful black man. Those primed by the word “ignorant,” however, made the correct selection more often. This “skin tone bias,” as Ben-Zeev says, was held during another testing phase involving the college students.
"Uncovering a skin tone memory bias, such that an educated black man becomes lighter in the mind's eye, has grave implications," Avi Ben-Zeev said. "We already know from past researchers about the disconcerting tendency to harbor more negative attitudes about people with darker complexions, e.g., the darker a black male is, the more aggressive he is perceived to be.”
He added, “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."
Past research has shown that stereotypes, including racial ideas, serve to help people make sense of the world by making quick categorical assortments, more easily identified and recalled at a later time.
Source: Ben-Zeev Avi. When an "Educated" Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind's Eye: Evidence for a Skin Tone Memory Bias. SAGE Open. 2014.