Shining a light on race: contrast and assimilation effects in the perception of skin tone and racial typicality

Kevin R. Brooks*, Daniel Sturman, O. Scott Gwinn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
20 Downloads (Pure)


Researchers have long debated the extent to which an individual’s skin tone influences their perceived race. Brooks and Gwinn (2010) demonstrated that the race of surrounding faces can affect the perceived skin tone of a central target face without changing perceived racial typicality, suggesting that skin lightness makes a small contribution to judgments of race compared to morphological cues (the configuration and shape of the facial features). However, the lack of a consistent light source may have undermined the reliability of skin tone cues, encouraging observers to rely disproportionately on morphological cues instead. The current study addresses this concern by using 3D models of male faces with typically Black African or White European appearances that are illuminated by the same light source. Observers perceived target faces surrounded by White faces to have darker skin than those surrounded by Black faces, particularly for faces of intermediate lightness. However, when asked to judge racial typicality, a small assimilation effect was evident, with target faces perceived as more stereotypically White when surrounded by White than when surrounded by Black faces at intermediate levels of typicality. This evidence of assimilation effects for perceived racial typicality despite concurrent contrast effects on perceived skin lightness supports the previous conclusion that perceived skin lightness has little influence on judgments of racial typicality for racially ambiguous faces, even when lighting is consistent.

Original languageEnglish
Article number604617
Pages (from-to)1-7
Number of pages7
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 27 Nov 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • skin tone
  • facial morphology
  • race
  • assimilation
  • contrast
  • face perception
  • skin tone bias
  • lightness and brightness illusions


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