I can tell your politics by the way you look

Actually whether you look, and how gullible you are by whether you believe this study

A study published by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln isn't quite funny enough to make the list for next year's IgNobel Prizes, but its conclusions are easily unlikely enough.

The study found that people who identify their politics as either liberal or conservative react so differently to visual cues such as the picture of a face that it's possible to identify their politics based solely on where they look after being given a visual cue.

Researchers put subjects in a chair in front of a white computer screen and told them to watch a black cross at the center. The cross would then be replaced by the drawing of a face with no pupils in the eyes, followed by pupils that would look left or right. Eventually a target would appear to the left or right of the drawing.

Participants tapped the space bar to indicate when and how they looked away. They were quizzed only after the test on their political beliefs.

Liberals were far more likely to follow the gaze of the cartoon pupils than conservatives, which the researchers theorized was because of the greater emphasis on individualism among conservatives and social interaction among liberals.

There are lots of tests based on where people look following certain cues. The design of every newspaper and most of the magazines you ever read were based on studies showing where the average person's eye falls first on a page or in response to specific stimuli.

Figuring you can predict something as complex as political belief by where a person's glance goes assumes an awful lot about the meaning of eyeballs, which pretty much never stop moving no matter which end of the political spectrum you're on.

Even assuming eye movements were a good indicator of belief, political beliefs aren't simple black and white, contrary to every political ad you've ever seen.

One person may agree with conservatives on financial issues and liberals on social issues, or vice versa, or some mix of both.

There are very few people so polarized in their own beliefs you could easily classify them as only one thing or the other, despite a political culture and zeitgeist that values only those fringers on the far ends of both sides of the debate.

The study, to be published in an upcoming edition of the journal Attention, Perception & Psychophysics was funded by the National Science Foundation and conducted by researchers with backgrounds in political science, psychology and, apparently, caricature.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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