The face had eyes, without pupils, when it first appeared, but pupils were added moments later, looking either to the right or the left. However, the participants were told to ignore where the face was looking, because it had nothing to do with the location of the target.
The researchers measured the time, in milliseconds, it took each participant to find the target each time it appeared during a course of 240 trials. But about half the time the face was sending the wrong message, looking to the right, for example, when the target actually appeared on the left. If the participant was influenced by the cue, it would take a few milliseconds longer to find the target if the face was looking in the wrong direction.
"It will make you faster when the target appears in a valid location, and slower when it appears in an invalid location because your attention is on the other side of the screen," Dodd said.
The participants were asked to fill out a couple of forms asking questions on issues like abortion, gay marriage, and so forth. They were also asked if they considered themselves liberal or conservative.
The 72 participants were divided into two groups, those who leaned most toward the liberal spectrum, and those who leaned most toward the conservative. So the grouping was relative to each other, not necessarily relative to the rest of the country. What passes for a liberal in Nebraska, however, might not pass as a liberal in New York City.
But the results were dramatic, Dodd said. The liberals were far more likely to follow the cue than the conservatives.
The findings will need to be replicated by others to be taken too seriously, and Dodd cautions against getting carried away with fears that our politics are dictated by our biology.
"You have to think that biological input is not necessarily a key determinant, but something that could interact at various times," Dodd said. "We are trying to avoid the biological determinist view. We're not saying this is all biology, or this is all genetics. We're looking at potential components."
It would be helpful if there were other studies by other researchers, but the closest one I could find was a study out of Duke University Medical Center four years ago. It involved monkeys.
The Duke researchers found that when high-ranking monkeys were shown images of other monkeys glancing one way of the other, they quickly followed the gaze of other high-ranking monkeys. But they tended to ignore the gaze of low-status monkeys, while low-status monkeys assiduously followed the gaze of all other monkeys.
The political philosophy of the monkeys was not determined.