Effects of facial skin pigmentation on social judgments in a Mexican population

Jaaziel Martínez-Ramírez, David Puts, Javier Nieto, Isaac G-Santoyo

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People quickly and involuntarily form impressions of others based on their facial physical attributes, which can modulate critical social interactions. Skin pigmentation is one of the most variable and conspicuous facial traits among human populations. Empirical evidence suggests that these variations reflect ancestral ecological selective pressures balancing cutaneous vitamin D synthesis with the protection of the dermis from ultraviolet radiation. Nevertheless, skin pigmentation may currently be subject to additional selective pressures. For instance, the colonial era in Central and South America developed a highly stratified society based on ethnic origins, and light skin pigmentation became associated with higher social status and deference. This association could have originated through historical social learning that promoted favorable social perceptions towards individuals with lighter skin color and unfavorable perceptions towards individuals with darker skin color, which could still be present in the perception of current populations. Facial skin pigmentation is also sexually dimorphic, with males tending to exhibit darker skin than females, a difference that could be driven by sexual selection. To explore whether social learning and sexual selection represent additional selective pressures on skin pigmentation, we tested how this facial trait influences fundamental social perceptions in a Mexican population (N = 700, 489 female). We sampled facial images of eight European American males with natural lighter facial skin and eight males from an indigenous pre-Columbian community from Mexico, the Me'Phaa, with natural darker facial skin. We produced stimuli from these images by varying the skin pigmentation while preserving the facial shape. Stimuli were rated on attractiveness, trustworthiness, perceived health, dominance, aggressiveness, and femininity/masculinity. We found that the natural light-skinned faces were perceived as more attractive, trustworthy, and healthy but less dominant than the natural dark faces. Furthermore, by varying the facial skin color in these original groups, we altered the perceptions of them, mainly their attractiveness. These results partially support the hypothesis that dark facial skin color may help males compete for mates. Also, the results strongly support the view that lighter facial skin color became associated with social benefits through social learning in this Mexican population. Our findings, when viewed through the lens of cultural evolution, align with previous research in social psychology and anthropology. They hold the potential to offer a comprehensive understanding of the origin of this social phenomenon of cultural transmission, which currently plays a role in the formation of racial attitudes, stereotyping, and racial inequality in Mexican and other Latin American populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0279858
JournalPloS one
Issue number11 November
StatePublished - Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

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