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Department of Cognitive Science

A face in the crowd: Examining race perception and lightness contrast

O. Scott Gwinn (
Kevin R. Brooks (
Department of Psychology, Macquarie University, Sydney


The aim of the current experiment was to explore the possibility that people's perceptions of race could be altered using lightness contrast effects. To test this, faces ranging from typically Caucasian (white) to typically African (black) were surrounded with either black or white faces. Participants were asked to rate how stereotypically white or black they perceived the central face image to be. A 2x5 repeated measures ANOVA revealed that participants rated faces as looking the same whether presented in white or black surrounds. A second experiment consisting of two parts was conducted in an attempt to explain this lack of an effect. In experiment 2a, the effect of skin tone luminance variations without differences in facial morphology were investigated, while experiment 2b studied the effects of morphology without differences in skin tone. While skin tone alone yielded an effect of perceived lightness, the perceived race of faces was not affected by the morphologically different surrounds. This suggests that although perceptions of skin tone can be altered using lightness contrast effects, this is not sufficient to alter overall racial appearance, questioning the role of skin tone in the perception of race.

Citation details for this article:

Gwinn, O., Brooks, K. (2010). A Face in the Crowd: Examining Race Perception and Lightness Contrast. In W. Christensen, E. Schier, and J. Sutton (Eds.), ASCS09: Proceedings of the 9th Conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science (pp. 119-125). Sydney: Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science.

DOI: 10.5096/ASCS200919
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