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Mitt Romney’s face: a Rorschach test

In the midst of the 2012 presidential election, people in the swing state of Ohio were bombarded with images of Mitt Romney’s face, but what they actually saw may have depended on their political leanings, a new study found.

Psychology researchers presented Ohio college students 450 times with subtly altered images of Romney’s face and asked which from the pair looked more like the presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor. An average image was generated. A second group of people, who had no idea how the images were generated, reviewed them and were asked to rate them on trustworthiness, competence, and caring.

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Although the images look virtually indistinguishable, the pictures deemed more trustworthy were more likely to be generated by students who said they voted for, or would vote for, Romney.

The study, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, is just the latest evidence of how our attitudes influence our perception. The camera does not lie, but our minds may.

“Our attitudes are actually biasing the visual representation we have of a person,” said Russell Fazio, an Ohio State University psychology professor. “What we conjure up can feed back into the attitude and basically reinforce the attitude.”

Fazio does not think the effect is strong enough to sway elections, but said it is probably more powerful in situations not involving celebrities, when biases may influence how we perceive more ambiguous visual information: the faces of people whose photos we have not seen thousands of times.

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