The study of Ohioans immediately before and after the 2012 presidential election showed that people's mental representation of Republican candidate Mitt Romney's face differed based on their political persuasion.
Though attitudes are known to influence how people perceive events and objects when information gaps cause ambiguity, this finding was surprising because the research participants had potentially been exposed to 40,000 election commercials between April 2012 and the vote.
"That our attitudes could bias something that we're exposed to so frequently is an amazing biasing effect," said Russell Fazio, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University and senior author of the study. "It suggests that people may not just interpret political information about a candidate to fit their opinion, but that they may construct a political world in which they literally see candidates differently."
The scientists asked 148 undergraduate participants to compare 450 pairs of subtly different images of Romney's face and select which image in each pair looked the most like him.
This method "allowed us to peer into the mind's eye of the participants and see what Romney looks like to them," said Alison Young, a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State and lead author of the paper.
After this task, researchers measured participants' political preferences.
Researchers produced composite images of Romney's face by averaging the images that had been generated by right-leaning or left-leaning participants. A separate group of people varying widely in age and background was asked to judge in which of the images of Romney looked more trustworthy - these participants had no idea how the images had been generated.
The observers selected the Republican-generated images as more trustworthy and better-looking overall.
"Because participants in the first part of the study were told to select the face on each trial that looked more like Romney, they had a goal to be accurate and not let their biases influence their decisions. It is striking that despite this accuracy goal, participants' political attitudes were associated with how trustworthy other people rated the images generated from their responses," said co-author Kyle Ratner, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at Ohio State.
Added Fazio, "The judges are serving as the objective standard. Their selection of trustworthiness is not based on whether the judges like Romney or not. It's whether the person who generated the face did."
The biasing effects of attitudes are critical, Fazio noted, because they influence how people process information and judge people or objects, ultimately determining how people behave.
Though the research was not about politics, the researchers did deliberately focus on a political subject because people who follow elections tend to develop strong opinions.
"We used a face that everyone knows really well, so bias should be hard to find," Young said. "But in political domains, people have strong attitudes, so if we were going to find a bias, this was a good place to look for it."
The findings speak to the power of human attitudes to affect not just what we believe or need, but on what we actually see, Fazio said.
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