February 17, 2010

Read My Face

Democrats and Republicans broadcast their politics with every look, study finds

By Taylor McNeil

Republicans and Democrats don’t just take differing points of view. According to a recent study, they also look different.

More often than not, college students in a test group could tell someone’s political affiliation simply by looking at a photograph of his or her face. Even yearbook photos of students who were members of campus political clubs were relatively easily identified. The key difference? Republicans projected power, and Democrats projected warmth.

Identify the Democrats and the Republicans. (Scroll down to the end of the story to check your answers.)

“The basis for these effects appears to rest in the perceivers’ stereotypes,” write Nicholas Rule, a doctoral student in psychology, and Nalini Ambady, a professor of psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences, in their paper published in the PLoS ONE online journal in January. Rule acknowledges that the perceivers in this case were a distinct group—college students who volunteered for the testing—but he believes the results would hold up with other audiences as well.

“The face is the most important source of non-verbal behavior we have, and it reveals a lot of information about people,” he says. “It seems we’re just really good at picking up on these very subtle cues and appearances, and associating those with what we know about or have stereotypes about.” He speculates that particular ways of responding to the world “get mapped onto your face through chronic behaviors.”

Power vs. Warmth

In the first of three experiments reported in study, the researchers found photos of longtime Democratic and Republican politicians—Chris Dodd, Rick Santorum and Barbara Boxer, to name a few. Then they cropped the photos to exclude everything but tight shots of their faces and converted them to black-and-white images.

When the photos were shown to the test subjects, they accurately guessed each politician’s party between 55 and 60 percent of the time. Although those findings were only a small degree above chance, they were statistically significant, says Rule, because they were so consistent. “What makes it meaningful is that everyone was scoring between 55 and 60 percent, some a little bit more and some a little bit less.”

A possible flaw in the study was that the photographs were of professional politicians who might have cultivated the persona they wanted to project to their constituents. So Rule and Ambady next took photos from college yearbooks of students who identified themselves as belonging to school Democratic or Republican clubs.

Here again the findings were consistent: about 55 to 60 percent of the time the subjects got it right.

What was the key dividing line between those perceived as Democrat or Republican? According to the college students who were tested, Republicans projected power, and Democrats projected warmth. Of course, there were exceptions. Not every Democrat was “warm,” nor was every Republican “powerful.” “It’s a linear relationship,” says Rule. “There’s a correspondence between how warm someone seems and how likely they are to be a Democrat.”

The research could be fodder for political consultants, whose clients might need to appeal to swing voters in either party—or to independent voters, who may be swayed by warmth one moment and power another.

The effect Rule and Ambady found might well exist beyond our borders, too. After reading the study, a journalist from the Netherlands contacted Rule and said he had done some informal testing to see if people could distinguish between right-wing and left-wing Dutch politicians. “His results were consistent with ours,” Rule reports.

Answers: From left: Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Christopher Dodd (D-Ct.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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