Home > Uncategorized > Do your political mental representations differ from mine? If you’re a Republican, they probably do.

Do your political mental representations differ from mine? If you’re a Republican, they probably do.


Have you ever wondered if people picture others differently in their minds? Is the picture of Barack Obama in your mind different from that in your brother’s mind? Research suggests that depending on the attitudes you have, it might be. A recent study has proposed that political opinions can change the mental pictures we have of politicians.

Image source: http://static01.nyt.com/images/2015/01/30/us/politics/presidential-candidate-tracker-1422646394170/presidential-candidate-tracker-1422646394170-articleLarge-v9.jpg

In cognitive psychology, the concept of pattern recognition is commonly understood as assigning meaning to some incoming stimulus. One example of pattern recognition is face recognition. There are two main systems used for face recognition: analytic and holistic. The holistic approach assigns meaning by using top-down processes. These processes are those that are generated from knowledge or experience that we have about the stimulus. Bottom-up processes, which use the features of a stimulus to ascribe meaning, are prevalent in the analytic approach to face recognition. However, it is the top-down approaches that can help explain why Young, Ratner, and Fazio (2014) found that mental representations of Mitt Romney depend on political affiliations.

The researchers conducted this study during the 2012 presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. They wanted to determine if the mental representations of Mitt Romney differed between Democrats and Republicans. But, how exactly can you know what a person’s internal representation actually looks like? Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately!), science hasn’t been created that allows us to look into the minds of one another. However, these researchers came up with a solution. Using a technique called reverse-correlation image classification, they were able to create an approximation of what Mitt Romney would look like to participants. They did this by presenting the participants with multiple trials of 2 pictures of Romney and asking which looked more like him. The pictures were all created using a base image of Romney and then superimposing noise patterns to slightly alter it (See Figure 1). They then aggregated all of the images selected as being more like Romney from each trial into one photo. This image was meant to represent the mental picture that individual had of Romney. The researchers also asked the participants about their political attitudes.

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Figure 1. Example of the images that participants had to choose between in determining which was more representative of Mitt Romney. (Obtained from Young, Ratner, & Fazio, 2014).

In the second phase of the experiment, the researchers brought in another pool of participants. This time the participants had to rate the trustworthiness of Romney from the images generated by individual’s representations of him in the first phase. The researchers decided to use trustworthiness as the measure because Romney’s level of trust was questioned during this election season. An earlier survey of Ohio voters had found that people thought Barack Obama to be more trustworthy than Romney. Therefore, the level of trustworthiness that an individual gave to the image was hypothesized to indicate the amount of support that individual had for Romney. (If you are interested in other research about trustworthiness and facial recognition, I recommend this post.) The researchers compared the judged trustworthiness in phase two to the level of support for Romney indicated by phase one individuals. They found that the more Republican participants were, the more their mental image of Romney was seen as trustworthy. These findings supported their hypothesis and indicate that we actually do picture people differently in our own minds based on the attitudes that we hold.

This research highlights the importance of the top-down processes for face recognition mentioned earlier. The political knowledge and attitudes that one holds can cause him or her to assign different meaning to a politicians face. Not only does this bias your beliefs about politicians, but also, it biases your mental representation of them as well!

As we approach the 2016 presidential election, this research holds a lot of relevance. When you think of a certain candidate, keep in mind that your mental pictures of him or her may be less veridical than you think


Young, A. I., Ratner, K. G., & Fazio, R. H. (2014). Political attitudes bias the mental representation of a presidential candidate’s face. Psychological Science, 25, 503-510. doi: 10.1177/0956797613510717

If you are curious about learning more about how bias and social status affect facial recognition this is also an interesting read.

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  1. December 9th, 2015 at 12:55 | #1

    This post is really interesting to me, especially with upcoming election as you mentioned! It is important to know when viewing something as unambiguous as a political figures face; people’s mental representations of Romney actually greatly varied depending on their attitudes towards him as an individual. This also makes me wonder how our biases can effect other mental representations on how we view the world, or if this is another way in which facial recognition is special.

    When first learning about facial recognition, it seemed like such an objective concept but this study, which showed a positive correlation between participants who showed more support for Mitt Romney and those who generated a more trustworthy-looking image and vice versa, is important because it shows how large of a role top down processing plays in this experience.

  2. jfreeman
    December 9th, 2015 at 23:40 | #2

    In a diverse group of presidential candidates ranging from Hilary Clinton and Jeb Bush coming from political dynasties to Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina coming from outside of the political world, trust becomes an important factor for the electorate in deciding who gets their support. Thus, this blog post has noticeably important connections to how political candidates in general get not just past their own primary, but get elected in office. However, another equally important connection from the blog post is what other top-down factors are contributory to the creation of mental representations for the faces of other people. Do I have a drastically different mental representation of my own parents than others do just because of the difference in social interaction I have with them? Do I have a different mental representation of my professors in some of my classes when compared to other students due to things such as the differences in potential majors, differences in motivation level towards the class, etc.? When even one’s political attitude can have an influence on both one’s mental representations and their process of face recognition, then potentially so many other important factors could bias these same processes.

  3. December 10th, 2015 at 09:55 | #3

    Research combining politics and psychology always captures my attention, and this post was very compelling! It is reasonable that Republicans perceived presidential candidate Mitt Romney as more trustworthy, and I would expect a similar pattern with Democrats and current president Barack Obama. Additionally, I like the explanation of this phenomena with top-down processing, as an individual’s prior knowledge of, and experiences with, a person greatly influence how they perceive he or she to be (despite whether he or she really is). This further demonstrates top-down processing’s applicability and influence, which is quite impressive!

    I believe it would be worthwhile delve deeper into how these attitudes connected to top-down processes form. I am curious if it is based on actual evidence, such as Romney doing something that would indicate his trustworthiness, or if it is what the individual wants to see. It would also be interesting to see further connections between top-down processing and mental representations of people, particularly if it only works with people you have knowledge about or if it could extend to strangers (where you use past experiences with people who look like them to formulate representations with). With these questions in mind, this study and post were intriguing and I’d be curious to see any psychological research with the upcoming election!

  4. December 10th, 2015 at 12:13 | #4

    I think this post is very interesting in terms of the approach to studying face recognition. Most of us have been in the situation where we have made whole character analyses based on face perception. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that we would estimate political candidates’ trustworthiness based on how we perceive their face. I think this observation relates to our class discussion about the value of eyewitness testimony. In addressing the issues that arise during eyewitness testimonies, things like in-group and out-group perception, personal biases, and life experiences were brought up as factors that influence how we interact with others. These same concepts do, in some ways, explain why a republican would see Romney’s face as more trustworthy than someone with a different political affiliation. Since in politics it is either you are with a candidate or against him or her, voters who are not republicans would see Romney as an part of the out-group, carry personal biases about past republican presidents and presidential candidates, and will have their own reasons as to why they do not support republicans candidates. When considered, these concepts make it clear that the results from this study have strong basis in cognitive psychology theories.

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