Ugly truth: Political affiliations influence first impressions of faces

GREENSBORO, N.C. — We all know politics can get ugly, but noteworthy new research finds the political affiliations of others can even influence our first impressions of their faces. Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro report disclosure of a stranger’s political partisanship beforehand strongly influenced study participants’ subsequent first impressions of likability and competence when shown pictures of the strangers’ faces.

It’s hardly a secret that politics in the U.S. remain especially bitter. As such, recent research indicates levels of ideological polarization are rising in America, promoting heightened tensions between people with different political opinions. While it isn’t all that unbelievable to hypothesize political polarization may influence how we perceive others, or more specifically, our first impressions of other people’s faces, few studies up until now had examined the links between face impressions and political partisanship.

To analyze how political partisanship may influence first facial impressions, Brittany Cassidy of UNCG and colleagues conducted two experiments encompassing 275 undergraduate college students.

The first experiment entailed subjects being presented with pairs of photos of two unfamiliar people’s faces. Then, they were tasked with determining which of the two was more likable and competent. Sometimes these photos were labeled according to the subjects’ true political partisanship: Republican or Democrat. Other times, however, the labels were either untrue or omitted altogether. Study authors were always aware of subjects’ true political ideologies.

Findings derived from the first experiment indicate the participants’ first impressions of the faces were more strongly affected by disclosed political partisanship, even if it was inaccurate, in comparison to non-disclosed partisanship.

The second experiment asked subjects to evaluate the “likability” of faces both before and after the person’s political affiliation had been revealed. This led to the observation that subjects’ impressions changed post-disclosure based on their own political partisanship.

Across both experiments the research team was sure to evaluate each subject’s level of perceived partisan threat, finding that the impact of disclosure on face impressions was notably more significant among people with stronger perceptions of partisan threat.

All in all, these findings suggest that polarization sparked by political partisanship can indeed influence basic aspects of perception. Study authors posit that this work, as well as further research conducted in the future, may help develop more effective efforts to foster equitable interactions between people with differing political ideologies.

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

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