What Drives the Perception of Political Attitudes?

Of course, many hypotheses as to which concrete cues drive these effects may come up. However, except for gender, for which we corrected in all studies, none of the obvious such as age or styling proved significant. One study (Samochowiec et al., 2010, Study 3) explicitly tested the impact of styling, but no support was found for this assumption. However, going back to the original assumption that political ideology corresponds to personal traits and in particular that right-wing ideology is related to social dominance (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), indeed perceived dominance seems to account for part of the phenomenon (see also Rule & Ambady, 2010), but not all.

So What?

Apparently, political attitudes manifest in faces, and people can read these differences. It may come as a surprise that people can identify political attitudes beyond merely left and right but to a rather precise degree. But it is surprising only in a culture that believes that internal mental concepts and external appearance are entirely unrelated and independent of each other. Given that it is adaptive to detect socially relevant dispositions and traits, it seems plausible that humans developed detection skills for such traits and dispositions. What is, however, astonishing is that political attitudes fall into this category of detectable attributes. After all, what makes political attitudes so relevant? We suggest that people are attuned to identifying political attitudes because political ideologies mark important group distinctions. People who differ on the political spectrum are also likely to differ in their tastes, cognitive styles, and personality. Therefore political ideology functions as an in-group/out-group marker. The finding of an in-group overexclusion tendency also corroborates the relevance of political attitudes as a group-defining feature.

The question remains as to whether being correctly identified by one’s looks is relevant for a politician. On one hand, one might assume that conservative or liberal looks become completely irrelevant once party membership is known. On the other hand, one may argue that political statements are perceived as more authentic and credible if the politician has the matching look. Although we have not directly tested this, some data support this latter assumption. The “readability” of a politician—that is, the accuracy with this politician was identified—significantly predicted his reelection success (Samochowiec et al., 2010). Candidates whose political voting in the past matched their looks had a higher chance of being reelected into the Swiss parliament. Apparently, on the dimension of interpersonal trust looking like what you are pays off—at least in politics.

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