Disclosing the political partisanship of subjects in photos significantly impacted impressions of their likeability and competence.
The results of an experimental study conducted by Brittany Cassidy of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and her colleagues showed that participants’ initial impressions of photos of strangers’ faces were significantly affected by whether or not the stranger’s political affiliation was disclosed. The study was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Previous studies have suggested that political polarization is increasing in the United States, causing conflicts between individuals with different political beliefs. This polarization could potentially affect how people perceive each other, such as their initial impressions based on facial appearance. While research has looked at the relationship between facial impressions and interpersonal behavior, few studies have examined the connection between facial impressions and political party affiliation.
To explore how political partisanship might influence face impressions, Cassidy and colleagues conducted two experiments involving 275 undergraduate college students.
In the first experiment, participants were presented with pairs of photos of two unfamiliar people’s faces and asked to select which was more likable and competent. In some cases, photos were labeled according to the subjects’ true political partisanship—Republican or Democratic. In other cases, these labels were inaccurate or omitted, but the researchers were aware of all subjects’ true political ideologies.
Results from the first experiment showed that participants’ first impressions of the faces were more strongly affected by disclosed political partisanship—even if it was inaccurate—than non-disclosed partisanship.
In the second experiment, participants evaluated the likeability of faces before and after political partisanship was disclosed. The researchers found that participants changed their impressions post-disclosure based on their own political partisanship.
In both experiments, the researchers also evaluated each participant’s level of perceived partisan threat; they found that the effects of disclosure on face impressions were particularly pronounced for people with stronger perceptions of partisan threat.
These results suggest that polarization based on political partisanship can appear in basic aspects of perception. The researchers suggest their findings—and future research in this area—could help inform efforts to foster more equitable interactions between people of differing political ideologies.
Reference: “Disclosing political partisanship polarizes first impressions of faces” by Brittany S. Cassidy, Colleen Hughes and Anne C. Krendl, 9 November 2022, PLOS ONE.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The authors declare no conflicts of interest. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.