The corner of your eye might reveal your political alignment

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In a new study published in PLOS One, researchers have uncovered that our facial expressions, specifically the subtle movements around our eyes, can reveal our political leanings. The study found that left-wing participants exhibited different facial reactions when reading about smiles and frowns of ingroup (left-wing) versus outgroup (right-wing) politicians. This finding opens new avenues in understanding the intersection of politics, emotions, and nonverbal communication.

Political leaders often use their smiles to influence public opinion, evoke feelings of happiness, and gain electoral support. However, smiles can convey a range of emotions from genuine enjoyment to dominance. Researchers have long known that seeing someone smile or hearing them laugh can trigger an automatic smile in us.

But what about reading about a politician’s smile? The new study aimed to explore whether linguistic portrayals of politicians’ smiles would elicit different facial reactions based on the reader’s political alignment. Understanding these reactions could provide deeper insights into how nonverbal cues and language influence political preferences.

The researchers conducted their study at the University of Bologna, involving thirty undergraduate students who identified as left-wing. Participants, predominantly female with a mean age of 22, were selected based on their political identification, ensuring they leaned towards the left-wing spectrum. The study aimed to measure their spontaneous facial reactions to reading about politicians’ smiles and frowns.

Participants were told they would evaluate phrases describing politicians, masking the true purpose of measuring their facial muscle activity. They sat individually in a lab, electrodes attached to specific facial muscles to record their reactions. They read sequential phrases on a computer monitor, each phrase describing either a left-wing or right-wing politician smiling or frowning.

The facial muscle activity was recorded using electromyography (EMG), focusing on three key muscles: the zygomaticus major (which pulls the lips into a smile), the orbicularis oculi (which creates wrinkles around the eyes), and the corrugator supercilii (which causes frowning).

The researchers observed significant differences in facial muscle reactions when participants read about ingroup versus outgroup politicians’ expressions.

The zygomaticus major showed higher activation when participants read about ingroup politicians smiling compared to outgroup politicians. This muscle’s activation increased consistently and gradually, peaking in the final time bins of the 3000-millisecond post-stimulus interval. Conversely, when reading about ingroup politicians frowning, there was a suppression of zygomaticus major activity. These results indicate that participants responded with more pronounced smiling (activation of the zygomaticus major) when reading about smiles from ingroup politicians.

The orbicularis oculi, which indicates a genuine smile by creating wrinkles around the eyes, also showed higher activation when participants read about ingroup politicians smiling. This muscle’s activity peaked early, around 500 to 1000 milliseconds post-stimulus onset, suggesting a rapid response to positive affect from ingroup politicians. In contrast, the orbicularis oculi showed weaker activation when participants read about outgroup politicians frowning, further supporting the notion that ingroup politicians’ smiles elicited more genuine positive reactions.

The researchers noted that the orbicularis oculi “showed the earliest peak of activation and appeared particularly sensitive to the ingroup vs. outgroup manipulation as compared to the other muscles.”

The corrugator supercilii showed higher activation when participants read about ingroup politicians frowning compared to outgroup politicians. This muscle’s activation was more pronounced and sustained over time, peaking at 2000 to 2500 milliseconds post-stimulus onset. Additionally, when reading about ingroup politicians smiling, there was a suppression of corrugator supercilii activity. This indicates that participants had more pronounced frowning (activation of the corrugator supercilii) responses to ingroup politicians’ frowns and a reduced frowning response to their smiles.

While the study provides evidence of a link between political alignment and facial reactions, it has limitations to consider. The study involved a relatively small sample size of thirty participants, predominantly female and left-wing, which limits the generalizability of the findings. Future studies should include a more diverse and larger sample, including right-wing participants and more male subjects, to explore potential gender and political orientation differences.

In addition, the study focused on immediate facial reactions within a 3-second time window after reading each phrase. Further research could explore longer-term reactions and how facial expressions change over extended periods.

“Despite these limitations our findings are the first to highlight how language and social information can shape embodied mechanisms underlying facial reactivity, which can be of relevance particularly to the field of social and political communication,” the researchers wrote.

The study, “Reading of ingroup politicians’ smiles triggers smiling in the corner of one’s eyes,” was authored by Edita Fino, Michela Menegatti, Alessio Avenanti, and Monica Rubini.

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