Evolutionary psychology study finds biracial individuals are perceived more positively across cultures

New research, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, provides evidence that biracial people are viewed more positively than their monoracial counterparts, potentially due to the historical and genetic implications of their ancestry. This study conducted in both the United States and China found that biracial individuals were perceived as more attractive, trustworthy, intelligent, and likely to be successful than others, challenging existing notions of racial bias and favoritism.

The motivation behind this study stems from a growing interest in interracial relationships and their societal impacts. Despite a historical backdrop of racial discrimination, the number of interracial marriages has been on the rise, suggesting a decrease in opposition to such unions. The researchers aimed to understand whether biracial people are viewed through the lens of social bias or if their mixed heritage might convey positive social cues.

“Interracial social interactions and biracial marriage are increasingly important issues to study. I grew up with a biracial friend. While others were curious about his foreign origin, he gained popularity partly due to his biracial looks,” said study author X.T. (Xiao-Tian) Wang, a professor and the director of the Applied Psychology program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“When I later came to the United States, I witnessed a rapid growth of biracial marriage, which was mainly studied within the frameworks of sociology and social psychology. In this study, we took an evolutionary approach to understand facial perception and social judgments of Asian-Caucasian biracial images in the eyes of Chinese and US Caucasians.”

The research included 227 Caucasian participants from a Midwest public university in the United States and 116 Chinese participants, predominantly university students from Beijing and Shanghai.

The core of the study revolved around a set of 196 photographs depicting faces with varying degrees of Caucasian and Asian features. These images were crafted using advanced graphical morphing software to blend 100% Caucasian and 100% Asian faces into composite images that spanned seven racial categories. This gradient ranged from entirely Caucasian to entirely Asian, with intermediary stages that reflected different proportions of biracial features.

Participants engaged in two key tasks. In the racial perception task, they were shown pairs of photos representing each racial category and asked to classify them according to perceived racial identity. The second task focused on social judgment. Here, participants rated each face on attributes including trustworthiness, intelligence, attractiveness, health, and potential for career success.

Among both Caucasian and Chinese participants, the researchers observed a significant own-race bias. In other words, Caucasians tended to perceive the biracial composites as more Caucasian than they actually were, while Chinese participants tended to perceive the biracial composites as more Chinese than they actually were, suggesting a psychological leaning towards categorizing ambiguous racial identities into one’s own racial group.

When it came to social judgment, the biracial images received remarkably higher ratings across several attributes when compared to both Asian and Caucasian images. Specifically, biracial individuals were rated more favorably in terms of trustworthiness, intelligence, health, and career prospects.

Interestingly, the researchers found no significant correlation between the own-race bias in racial perception and the positive ratings for biracial individuals, suggesting that the observed favoritism is not merely a derivative of in-group favoritism or a direct consequence of racial categorization biases.

The researchers also found that biracial individuals were generally rated as more attractive than monoracial individuals, a finding consistent with previous research suggesting that mixed-race faces are often perceived as more appealing. This phenomenon could be attributed to the “average effect” in facial perception, where faces that are more “averaged” or symmetrical — a common characteristic of morphed or mixed-race faces — are typically found to be more attractive.

While biracial individuals were perceived as more attractive, this did not directly correlate with the positive social judgments in other categories. This distinction suggests that while attractiveness is a significant factor in the overall positive perception of biracial individuals, it is not the only, nor necessarily the primary, driver of biracial favoritism in social judgments.

“We proposed a novel hypothesis that biracial facial cues reveal the ancestral history of intergroup alliances between members of two races or ethnic groups,” Wang told PsyPost. We found that when racial cues are mixed, biracial individuals were viewed more positively than other-race or even own-race members. The US and Chinese participants showed a similar pattern of own-race bias in racial perception and biracial favoritism in the social judgment of trustworthiness, intelligence, and potential to be successful.”

“Overall, our results suggest that biracial facial features signal a successful genetic admixture and coalition in parental generations and thus increase the trustworthiness and cooperative potential of a biracial person.”

However, the study is not without its limitations. The researchers caution that the use of morphed images might not capture the full complexity of real-world racial identities. Additionally, the historical and cultural specificity of the U.S. and China may not make these findings universally applicable. Future research could explore these dynamics in other contexts and with more nuanced measures of racial and cultural identity.

The study, “Biracial Faces Offer Visual Cues of Successful Intergroup Contact: Genetic Admixture and Coalition Detection,” XT (XiaoTian) Wang and Geoffrey Miller.