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Research Overview

Threat-Related Attentional Avoidance of Black Male Faces with Dark Versus Light Skin Tone

People selectively attend to stimuli perceived as threatening (e.g. snakes, spiders, angry faces). As such, because Black men are stereotyped as dangerous and threatening, previous research has demonstrated that Black male faces (vs. White male faces) capture early attention, but also provoke attentional avoidance when presented for longer durations. There may, however, exist substantial within-race variation in perceived threat, as dark-skinned Black men are generally associated with more stereotypically negative characteristics than light-skinned Black men.

In six experiments, Jennifer Perry, Jeffrey Birk, Michael Chu, Keith Maddox, and Heather Urry manipulated skin tone to examine whether attentional patterns differ for Black male faces with darker versus lighter skin tones. We used 24 pairs of identical faces (e.g. same facial features, expression), though one face in each pair was darker-skinned and the other was lighter-skinned. Despite only differing on skin tone, the dark-skinned faces were indeed rated as being more threatening than the light skinned faces (E1).

Results from a dot-probe paradigm indicated that regardless of presentation time, participants were slower to correctly identify probe letters appearing in the spatial location previously occupied by dark-skinned faces (E2-E3, E5). This attentional bias was specific to upright face stimuli, as it did not occur under conditions hypothesized to limit social (comparably colored geometric shapes; E4) or facial (inverted faces; E5) processing.

Taken together, these results suggest a pattern of attentional avoidance to dark-skinned (vs. light skinned) Black men driven by greater perceived threat.

Attentional Avoidance

The figure above shows the skin tone attentional bias effect. Participants were slower to identify a probe letters appearing in the spatial location previously occupied by dark-skinned faces compared to those occupied by light-skinned faces. This suggests selective attentional avoidance of more phenotypical Black male faces.