Have you ever encountered someone and, based solely on a few actions or statements, assumed something about their political or social beliefs? If so, you’re not alone. New research indicates that people often make snap judgments about others’ ideologies, even in the absence of explicit information about their beliefs. The new findings have been published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
“We were interested in this topic because we noticed that in political discussions people often use labels like liberal, conservative, feminist, or racist, and that these discussions often do not seem particularly constructive,” explained study author Carsten W. Sander, a PhD student of social psychology at the University of Hamburg.
“We knew from psychological research on spontaneous trait inferences that people often infer personality traits from snapshots of other people’s behavior, and we wondered whether what we had noticed might constitute spontaneous inferences of ideological categories, i.e., people ideologically categorizing each other. We thought that such inferences may play an important role in political polarization, yet we found that the literature on polarization so far did not cover ideological categorization as a process.”
“Rather, it has focused on what people think and feel about those from other ideological categories (in the polarization literature mostly political parties). We therefore wanted to investigate how people come to perceive each other as belonging to these categories (extending the focus to a large range of ideological categories).”
The researchers conducted a series of five preregistered experiments, with 1,012 participants in total, in which they found evidence that people tend to spontaneously infer ideological categories (such as feminist, racist, atheist, leftist, incel, and more) from simple behavioral descriptions. The research suggests these ideological judgments are remarkably robust, often persisting even when alternative explanations are presented.
“The average person should take away that people tend to sort each other into ideological categories on the basis of very little information and that this process is relatively automatic and difficult to disrupt,” Sander told PsyPost. “Categorizing someone as a liberal, conservative, racist, sexist, environmentalist, or fascist without knowing their actual attitudes or values can have negative consequences, even though it may often feel justified. For instance, it may lead us to presume opinions or traits that the other person does not have and to judge them unfairly. This, in turn, may escalate conflict rather than resolve it.”
In Experiment 1, the participants read 24 behavioral statements that implied ideological categories without explicitly mentioning them and were asked to rate whether they thought the person belonged to two ideological categories: one implied by the statement and another semantically distinct category. The results showed that participants consistently judged the targets to belong to the implied categories to a significantly stronger extent than to control categories.
For example, after reading about a woman saying that “You have to mentally break away from all this striving for achievement and focus on what’s really important: peace, love, nature,” the participants consistently inferred that she was a “hippie.” This suggests that people are quick to categorize individuals based on their actions, even in the absence of explicit information.
In Experiment 2, the researchers employed an indirect probe recognition paradigm to explore whether people spontaneously infer ideological categories from others’ behavior. Importantly, in this version of the experiment, the participants were not explicitly asked about their impressions of the targets’ ideology.
Participants read the behavioral descriptions and then indicated whether specific probe words, including the implied ideological category and the control category, appeared in the statements. Longer response latencies for correct rejections for implied category compared to the control category were interpreted as evidence of spontaneous ideological inferences.
The results showed a significant effect of probe type, with participants responding significantly slower in the implied condition than in the implied-other condition. This finding strongly suggests that people do make spontaneous ideological inferences when they learn about others’ behavior. Importantly, since the indirect paradigm conceals the true purpose of the experiment better than direct measures, demand effects or socially desirable responding were less likely.
Experiment 3 aimed to investigate whether ideological inferences persist even when alternative reasons are provided, using a direct measure similar to Experiment 1. The key difference was that in Experiment 3, the behavioral descriptions were presented alongside ancillary statements that either offered alternative reasons for the observed behaviors or did not.
For example, participants were presented with the behavior “Michelle decides not to buy coffee after all, after the waiter said there was no soy milk.” They were then presented with a reason (“Michelle saw a gastroenterologist a few weeks ago and learned that her digestive problems are due to lactose intolerance”) or a control statement (“Michelle’s friend saw a gastroenterologist the day before yesterday and was told that his digestive problems are not due to lactose intolerance)”.
The researchers found that the alternative reasons for the described behaviors weakened spontaneous ideological inferences. But they did not eliminate them. Participants still inferred ideological categories from the statements. For instance, Michelle was still identified as “vegan” despite being lactose intolerant.
These findings support the idea that ideological inferences are subject to the correspondence bias, as providing reasonable alternative explanations did not prevent people from drawing ideological inferences.
Experiment 4 aimed to investigate whether this correspondence bias persists under spontaneous processing conditions by combining the indirect probe recognition paradigm from Experiment 2 with the materials from Experiment 3. Even when alternative explanations were provided, the findings from Experiment 4 replicated the results of Experiment 2.
In Experiment 5, the researchers employed a False Recognition Paradigm, which utilized images of actors’ faces as retrieval cues to test whether participants formed ideological inferences about the actors. In an initial learning phase, the participants memorized a series of behavioral descriptions paired with actors’ faces, with ancillary statements either containing reasons for the behavior or not. In a test phase, the participants then saw the same faces again, this time paired with probe words representing either the ideological category implied by the actor’s behavior or a control category.
The results of Experiment 5 revealed a significant main effect for probe type, indicating higher false recognition rates for implied categories compared to control categories. This suggests that participants formed ideological inferences about the actors, as their faces served as retrieval cues for the implied categories.
In line with the previous findings, the interaction with ancillary statement was not significant in Experiment 5, indicating that providing alternative reasons for the behaviors did not significantly reduce false recognition rates.
“What surprised us about our findings is how robust the ideological inferences were. In three of our experiments, we tried to actively disrupt them by presenting participants with information about situational factors that provided alternative reasons for these behaviors,” Sander told PsyPost.
“We know from previous research that people often infer personality traits from other’s behaviors even when these behaviors are likely caused by situational factors. We thus expected that these situational factors would not entirely erase the spontaneous ideological inferences. But we were surprised by the fact that they did not even meaningfully reduce them.”
“We suspect that the reason for this might be that people (mis-)perceive the behaviors we investigated to be very reliable indicators of ideological group membership,” Sander explained. “They might think that a member of category A would never express opinion B, so a person with opinion B must belong to category B.”
While this study provides valuable insights into the process of making ideological judgments, it’s important to acknowledge its limitations. One limitation is that the experiments were conducted in controlled settings, which may not fully replicate the complexities of real-world interactions. Additionally, while the study focused on many different ideological categories, it may not encompass the full range of human beliefs and behaviors.
In terms of future research, there is room for further exploration into the dynamics of ideological judgments, including how they might be influenced by factors such as cultural differences and the timing of information presentation. Additionally, investigating strategies to mitigate the correspondence bias in everyday interactions could have practical implications for promoting understanding and reducing biases in society.
“Although we have reason to suspect that spontaneous ideological inferences have negative consequences in social interactions, we have yet to investigate this,” Sander said. “We know from the literature on political polarization that people often dislike and distrust ideological outgroups and that perceiving someone to be a member of one’s outgroup can cause negative interpersonal outcomes such as contact avoidance.”
“Thus, it seems logical that spontaneous ideological inferences may elicit such outcomes. However, we do not yet know how often such negative outcomes actually occur in real life, such that it is difficult to gauge the relative importance spontaneous ideological inferences have for phenomena such as political polarization.
“We are in the process of looking at different ways to decrease spontaneous ideological inferences,” Sander added. “Although we do not yet know for certain how this can be achieved, we do have some ideas on what may help. As these inferences occur somewhat automatically, they are rather difficult to suppress voluntarily.”
“What we believe anyone interested in reducing ideological inferences can do is to take a look at how they talk about politics and try not to encourage others to think in boxes. For example, when discussing an opinion or policy one may refrain from associating it with a particular ideological category. When talking about political parties or other ideological categories, one might try to highlight heterogeneity in both ingroup and outgroup instead of suggesting that all group members are the same. And one might try to express and be tolerant of opinions that are unusual for one’s political ingroup, such that expressing a divergent opinion becomes less predictive of outgroup status.”
The study, “Investigating mechanisms of political polarization: Perceivers spontaneously infer ideological categories from other people’s behavior“, was authored by Carsten W. Sander and Juliane Degner.