New research published in PLOS ONE reveals a potential consequence of political polarization in the United States. The study provides evidence that partisan labels influence first impressions of strangers’ faces.
As the American population has become politically polarized over recent years, more research has attempted to uncover the causes and consequences of the trend. Prior research has investigated the relationship between first impressions and political party affiliation. These efforts revealed that when the faces were candidates for romantic partnership, knowing political affiliations had a significant effect.
The authors of the current study were curious if first impressions were affected by political party when meeting strangers and secondarily if these impressions could be changed with new, more accurate information about political party affiliation.
“Americans have become increasingly polarized with regard to political beliefs, to the extent that it affects interpersonal relationships beyond disagreements about policy,” said study author Brittany S. Cassidy, an assistant professor and director of the Social Cognition Lab at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“This study was designed to see if people are politically polarized in basic aspects of how people think about others — if just the mere knowledge that someone has shared or opposing partisanship affects how you think about their faces. Since impressions of faces shape people’s motivation to interact with others, impressions polarized by political affiliation might mean that people have naturally fewer opportunities to interact with people who are not ideologically similar. This may perpetuate inter-partisan tension. I wanted to create a series of experiments tapping into this idea–this is an avenue my lab is currently studying in a few different ways.”
The study was divided into two separate experiments.
The first experiment included 181 undergraduate students from an American university. They took a survey that would indicate their political party affiliation. Participants were asked to view over 100 pairs of faces and were asked which seemed more competent to hold political office. Of these 100 pairs, some were labeled as Republicans and Democrats. The researchers found that first impressions were influenced by political party preference. In addition, participants who identified as Democrat rated Republican labeled images as more threatening than did Republican participants observing Democrat images.
The second experiment explored the potential consequences of learning political party affiliation after first impressions were made. The first experiment was replicated with 94 undergraduates who differed from the sample in experiment one. In this experiment, the subjects evaluated likeability of faces before and after political partisanship was disclosed.
In other words, the subjects were first presented with faces they were to rate as extremely likable to unlikable. Next, with some of the faces they learned the political affiliation of the individuals. Then they rated the faces again as extremely likable to unlikable. In this condition, when the political affiliation matched the participant’s own affiliation, the likeability of the face was increased. Conversely, when the affiliation did not match, the likeability of the face decreased.
“People often like to say that they ‘don’t judge books by their covers,’ but the literature suggests that people often do just the opposite,” Cassidy told PsyPost. “People have strong impressions about faces that may not necessarily reflect a person’s intentions or mental states, but nevertheless, people rely on these impressions when making decisions about others. My work shows that these kinds of impressions, that may be inaccurate, but agreed upon, become polarized by a mere political label (Republican or Democrat). This means that people may limit their opportunities to interact with others based on faces and political labels despite claims that they are open to ‘reaching across the aisle.'”
The researchers also found the effects of disclosure on face impressions were particularly pronounced among those with stronger perceptions of partisan threat.
“Our findings of polarized impressions based on people’s political ideology were paralleled by the extent to which people found shared and other partisans threatening,” Cassidy explained. “This means that these opportunities to interact with others that arise from impressions of faces may, in part, be based on how people perceive other partisan groups as posing a threat to them. These findings suggest that political identity might not be the only thing driving polarized impressions of partisan faces. It could be that polarized impressions of partisans only emerge to the extent that a perceiver finds a party threatening.”
The research team acknowledged some limitations, including the age of the participants. College students may not fully understand the full scope of their feelings regarding political affiliation. Another consideration could be the differences in exposure to diverse groups; if participants were limited in their exposure to people of differing opinions and affiliations.
“It will, of course, be important to manipulate the threat posed by partisan groups to determine whether threat plays a causal role in polarized impressions of partisan faces,” Cassidy said. “It will also be interesting to see how people perceive partisans who have switched parties or who seem more willing to vote with an opposing party. Are these individuals’ faces perceived as more or less trustworthy/likable to shared or opposing partisans? That is, is it just the party label that matters, or is there further within-party context that may contextualize polarized impressions of faces?”
Despite the limitations, the researchers feel the results are meaningful. They conclude the study this way, “Simply labeling people as political partisans shifts impressions of their faces. These findings have implications for when people might disclose their partisanship to others. Based on Experiment 2, for example, people might avoid negative impressions by not disclosing their partisanship until they are in an inclusive space and perceived as relatively non-threatening”
“The fact that polarized impressions of partisans emerge in basic aspects of social cognition (how people think about other people) suggests that interventions designed to reduce interparty tension should focus on these basic aspects of social cognition as well as higher-order aspects (e.g., reasoning about policies),” Cassidy told PsyPost.
The study, “Disclosing political partisanship polarizes first impressions of faces“, was authored by Brittany Cassidy, Colleen Hughes, and Anne Krendl.