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The mystery of the Thatcher effect--solved?

Posted by Christopher Shea  February 2, 2010 04:34 PM

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If you were one of Margaret Thatcher's relatives, you might hope that a social-science finding known as the "Thatcher effect" would refer to, oh, something like the galvanizing influence of a charismatic leader on a political movement.

In psychology, however, it refers to the ghastly impression that can be caused by inverting the eyes and mouth in a photographic portrait. It was first discussed in a very brief article published in Perception, in 1980, by Peter Thompson, a psychologist at the University of York.

Thompson was exploring the related questions of 1) why it is so hard to recognize an inverted face and 2) how much information is conveyed by the eyes and mouth alone. Given the importance of eyes and mouths as signifiers of identity, one hypothesis was that if you inverted a face but kept the eyes and mouth right-side-up, the face would be easier to identify.

thatcherized face.jpg
A "Thatcherized" photo of Thatcher: head inverted, eyes and mouth in original orientation.

In truth, the two faces do not look all that different--until you rotate the page 180 degrees and look at the manipulated face from the new angle. Then it comes across as semi-monstrous.

In his original paper, titled "Margaret Thatcher: A New Illusion," Thompson did little more than throw that odd tidbit out there. (His final line was, "It might even tell us something about Margaret Thatcher.") But in the latest issue of Psychological Science, three researchers from the University of Western Australia conclude that the "grotesque effect" has largely to do with "inconsistent lighting cues." It is not the inverted eyes and mouths per se that cause the illusion but the fact that while most of the face is lit from one direction, the eyes and mouth are lit from another.

Once that lighting anomaly is eliminated (through simple photo-editing), the "mean bizarreness rating" of the Thatcherized faces drops down into the normal range. Yes, they asked research subjects to use such a scale.

Since it's hard to invert a computer monitor, and I don't want you to strain your neck, I've flipped the Thatcherized Thatcher for you. (You're welcome.)

thatcherized face--rightsideup.jpg
A Thatcherized image of Thatcher, inverted

You can find Thompson's two-page 1980 article here. It remains one of the 10 most cited articles in the journal Perception.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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