Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > How to Watch the Debates

Sep 22, 2016

How to Watch the Debates

tags: election 2016,Presidential Debate

Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN. His newest book is Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).

The temptation to judge candidates at a TV debate the way we judge actors on a television soap opera is impossible to resist. But there is a way to move beyond the superficial aspects of a television debate. Surprisingly, it doesn’t require that you become a political junkie. 

While knowledge is obviously important – heading into a debate it helps to be aware of the key issues and the candidates’ positions – no amount of preparation is likely to help you sort out the conflicting claims the candidates make as the debate unfolds in real time. There are simply too many arcane subjects to master to be able to know with confidence whose version of the truth actually is the truth. This invariably leads most of us to throw up our hands in frustration and do the only thing that seems reasonable under the circumstances and that is to watch the debate as if we’re theater critics, casting praise on the candidates who manage to deliver pithy sound bites while scornfully dismissing those who fumble.

But there is a way out of this trap. It’s a sure-fire method to finding substance even in the midst of the glitz that envelops and subsumes candidate debates in the modern age. Here’s how it works. Say you are about to watch a presidential candidates’ debate. After preparing as best as you can by reading as much as you can from as diverse an assortment of media sources as possible, sit down and watch the debate with a pad and pencil at the ready. As the debate begins your job, contrary to everything you were probably told by your civics teacher, is not to take notes on what the candidates say but on what you feel as they are speaking. That’s right. Don’t worry about the fine points of the argument, which there’s no way to spot check in real time anyway, even with Google. Just focus on how you feel, noting what you experience when Candidate X says this and Candidate Y says that, whether the feeling is positive or negative. Feeling patriotic? Note who made you feel that way. Feeling fearful? Note that, too.

At the end of the debate review your notes. This is a magical moment. Those notes in which you recorded your emotions as you watched the debate amount to a roadmap to each candidate’s strategy. How you felt as they barnstormed their way through the debate is a clue to how they are trying to manipulate you. The emotions we feel in the course of a debate as candidates make their pitches are the result of the calculated strategy of the candidates and their handlers. Your little list is your campaign cheat sheet. With it in hand you can tell how the candidates are trying to manipulate you, whether by fear or patriotic blather or whatever.

The reason it’s important to note your feelings on your note pad is to be able to distance yourself from them. While we are feeling what we’re feeling as the debate unfolds it’s too hard to be able to make a proper assessment. Only in a calm moment afterwards can we do so, as social science research shows.

Why is this exercise important? Because it helps you answer one of the most important questions that you face as a voter: How the candidates are trying to manipulate you. Fortunately, it doesn’t require knowing a lot about them. Rather, it requires knowing a lot about yourself and being honest with yourself. Like Dorothy we don’t need a wizard to help us figure things out. What we need is to be able to pay close attention to our own feelings. 

Politics in the end always comes down to feelings, whatever the civics teachers say. Understanding our own emotional responses is therefore critical. Once you know a politician is trying to reach you by appealing to your fears, say, it’s a lot harder for him/her to do so. This leaves you free to make a more rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses and your own real priorities.

How we perform this exercise is critical.  This is because we aren't likely to be honest with ourselves.  There are two primary reasons for this.  One is Belief Perseverance.  This is the term used by social scientists to describe the tendency to persist in a belief long after facts have come into view which undermine it.  An example from history pointed to by Philip Tetlock was Earl Warren's commitment to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  Long after it was demonstrated that they posed no threat to the United States after Pearl Harbor he maintained that they did. This was almost certainly because he was an architect of the program.  Once he became wedded to the idea he found it very difficult to reject it.  By then it had become fundamental to his outlook.  Once this happens he found the prospect of changing his belief so painful he shied away from it.  This is typical of human beings. (In his memoirs he admits internment was a grave error.)

The second reason is partisanship, as Drew Westen has amply demonstrated.  During the 2004 election he put supporters of George W. Bush and John Kerry into an MRI machine.  He then told them about instances in which their favored candidate was guilty of hypocrisy.  Predictably, the Bush voters didn't want to hear this information.  Just as predictably, the same went for the Kerry voters.  But what was surprising was what the MRI results showed:  Both Bush and Kerry voters automatically discounted the information contrary to their beliefs by shutting off the supply of blood to the areas in the brain that had been activated when they learned the information that upended their commitments. 

Human beings hate cognitive dissonance.  It turns out our brains do too.  As Danny Oppenheimer observes, we like to be consistent.  Consistency is not, it turns out, the hobgoblin of little minds, but of all minds.  

The lesson?  When we are reviewing our notes after a debate we need to be honest with ourselves about our own biases.  This approach places the focus not on the candidates' honesty so much as on our own, flipping the usual focus.  

Though I indicated above that all voters, whether they are political junkies or not, can benefit from the approach outlined here to debate watching, the fact is that this is a much harder exercise for low information voters than those who follow politics closely.  This is because low information voters by definition have less access to information in their own brain by which they can cross check what the candidates say.  An individual who has been paying little attention to the campaign may not be in a position to recognize lies that the media have repeatedly exposed.  This makes them much more susceptible to Confirmation Bias.  This is the tendency to hear what one wants to hear and to discount what one doesn't.  (The latter is called Disconfirmation Bias.)  

This suggests that the voters who would benefit most from my recommended approach to debate watching — low information voters — are probably the least likely to employ it successfully even if they were to try it. Fortunately, we can all learn to second-guess our automatic reactions.  Doing so would save even low information voters from many of the egregious mistakes we have seen them make during this campaign. 

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