Learning to Identify Political Attitudes From Interpersonal Encounters

Political positioning is primarily based on attitudes, beliefs, and opinions, which reside inside a person’s head. To believe that perceivers can infer political attitudes from people’s looks is contingent on two premises. First, one has to assume that political attitudes transfer into people’s looks (Ambady, Bernieri, & Richeson, 2000; Brunswik, 1956; Funder, 1995; Zebrowitz & Collins, 1997). In Brunswikian terms this refers to the “ecological validity.” We previously outlined several processes by which dispositions may become facially engraved. The link may also be indirect. To the extent that political attitudes are linked to other personality attributes that have already been shown to be detectable, it does not seem so farfetched to expect that in turn political inferences are accurate too. For example, openness to experience, a quality that has been shown to be detectable from pictures (Penton-Voak et al., 2006), is negatively correlated with a more right-wing ideology (Carney, Jost, Gosling, & Potter, 2008), and social dominance orientation (SDO), which may be detectable (Yeagley, Morling, & Nelson, 2007), is positively correlated with a right-wing ideology (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). There is also reason to assume that dominance and high-status behavior, which is associated with SDO, can be caused by male testosterone (Josephs, Sellers, Newman, & Mehta, 2006; McIntyre, Barrett, McDermott, Johnson, Cowden, & Rosen, 2007), which has been shown to be detectable for men (Penton-Voak & Chen, 2004).

Besides ecological validity, the second prerequisite for accurate person perception is what Brunswik (1956) termed cue utilization. One would have to assume that perceivers are sensitive to the respective cues and interpret them accurately. While accurate person perception is undoubtedly highly functional, as we explained already, it may not be so obvious why people should be sensitive to “political” cues? What are the specific functions served by the detection of political positions? We would argue that detecting political attitudes goes beyond the advantages of diagnosing specific attributes. Distinguishing between political opponents and friends may be conceived as a special case of a more general adaptive skill, namely, to discriminate similar others from dissimilar ones. Detecting and discriminating opponents, enemies, out-group members, and carriers of different genes from cooperators, friends, in-group members, and relatives may be at the heart of the evolution of person perception skills. For their personal well-being, people tend to flock to those who are similar, who share their attitudes and core values (Byrne, 1971). They trust those who do and distrust those who do not.

Political attitudes in particular seem to be quite distinguishing and correlate to all kinds of differences between people. As Tomkins (1963) proposed, political attitudes pervade all aspects of life. Political and ideological differences are indicative of personality differences and thinking styles. For example, conservatism (rightwing ideology) is positively related to uncertainty, rigidity (Block & Block, 2006; Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003), and being power oriented (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999) and negatively related to attributional complexity (Altemeyer, 1998; Wanke & Wyer, 1996). Conservatives seem more concerned with people’s behavior, whereas liberals focus on people’s attitudes (Wanke & Wyer, 1996) when forming a judgment. Compared with conservatives, nonconservative people show a higher preference for abstract paintings (Wilson, Ausman, & Mathews, 1973), complex poems (Gillies & Campbell, 1985), and unfamiliar music (Glasgow, Cartier, & Wilson, 1985). Liberals and conservatives even differ in how they decorate their personal surroundings (Carney et al., 2008). Given these findings, it seems safe to assume that liberals and conservatives represent quite different subcultures of people. As a consequence of such pervasive differences, people may have experienced many opportunities to learn who is likely to share their views, lifestyles, and behaviors and who is not. Over time they have acquired an overlearned sensitivity to these differences.

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