Debate Psychology: 5 Science-Backed Tips to Avoid Getting Your Brain Hacked

A guide to thinking critically while watching televised political debates.

presidential candidates

The first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960 changed the direction of that election and how Americans conduct politics. Prior to that debate, Richard Nixon was leading the polls. Afterward, it was John F. Kennedy, who pulled ahead and ultimately won it all.

This debate was so game-changing that in the following three elections, the sitting president refused to debate any challenger. In today’s era of 24-hour news cycles and seemingly unending campaigns, that refusal is tough to imagine. Kennedy got ahead with the help of stage makeup, pre-production prep, and visible charisma. As researchers have pointed out, today’s candidates have far more working against them: Fancy camera work, on-screen messaging, post-debate analysis, and real-time judgment on social media.

Those elements can benefit or harm a viewer’s interpretation of the debates. Below is Inverse’s science-backed guide on how to get the most out of watching them. In turn, your opportunity to use these studies is now: The first 2020 Democratic debate airs this Wednesday and the second airs Thursday.

Listening to the Debate Is Very Different Than Watching It

tv debate, Nixon, Kennedy
The first of the four televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. 

After the first 1960 debate, Nixon’s running mate Henry Cabot Lodge complained that the “son-of-a-bitch just lost us the election.” Lodge had just watched the televised debate, in which Nixon looked sullen and sick.

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s choice for vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, only listened to the debate on the radio. After listening in, he thought that Kennedy had lost.

In a 2003 study exploring how television affects political behavior, scientists revisited the Nixon-Kennedy debate and showed it to 171 students with no prior knowledge of the event. The students were split into two groups — one that watched it and another that listened only to an audio version.

Survey results showed that watching the debate slightly enhanced how much people walked away knowing about the election. The study authors credit that to the power of visual information to enhance memory. This result, however, was specific to people who admitted they were not very knowledgeable about politics in general. The more “politically sophisticated subjects,” meanwhile, learned as much from the radio as they did from TV.

The big difference between the two groups was what they cared about when it came to assessing the candidates. TV viewers evaluated for leadership effectiveness and integrity, whereas listeners only judged candidates for their leadership potential. This was bad news for Nixon, who simply didn’t look like a person with integrity. Viewers gave him low marks on that scale, leading to the idea that he had “lost.”

The takeaway from this research is that people who watch debates tend to focus on searching for visual clues about a candidate’s personality, even though other research demonstrates that people are more likely to say someone has a wonderful personality if they are considered beautiful.

Ignore It When the Camera Chooses a Winner

Bush and Trump debate. 

In June, University of Arkansas political scientists published a study demonstrating that there are clear winners and losers when it comes to camera time. This is a feedback loop that disadvantages candidates you’re looking to learn more about. Those who are polling highest at the time of the debates get the most solo time on camera, and they tend to walk away still leading the polls.

The study points out that aggregate camera time, average shot time, and the type of shot (solo, split-screen, side-by-side, multiple-candidate, or audience reaction shots) inherently influences our perception of who these candidates are as people — though we may not be aware of it. For example, during the 2016 Republican debates, Donald Trump received the most camera time, followed by Jeb Bush. Trump spent less screen time than any other Republican candidate in group shots and, in turn, his solo shots presented him as the leader of the pack.

“Although the questions asked and the speaking time given to the candidates can certainly influence how the candidates convey themselves and their policy positions,” the researchers write, “perhaps a more primal, subtle and pervasive means by which the media affects public perceptions of candidates is how they visually depict each candidate.”

More Screen Time Doesn’t Mean You Know Them Better

2012 presidential debate
Deployed sailors watch the 2012 presidential debate.

When we watch people on television, we form relationships with them known as “parasocial bonds”. Because of our very human need to form relationships, we end up forming relationships with people we don’t actually know. These relationships can feel real and have real psychological outcomes.

In 2018, researchers at the University of Buffalo determined that parasocial bonds could in part explain why Trump was elected. After Trump spent 14 years on television as a reality show personality, people began to feel like they were bonded to him and, accordingly, became more likely to believe what he says. The study suggested that watching Trump on TV was a good predictor of whether a person would actually voting for him, suggesting that if someone is in your living room long enough, you’re more likely to think you can trust them.

On-Screen Messaging and Post-Debate Analysis Influence Results

crowd debate
A crowed watches the 2016 debate at the LBJ Presidential Library.

While on-screen visuals like Tweets and quotes usually end up being largely neutral in nature, viewers should be mindful of another sort of bias. In a 2015 study published in Communications Studies, researchers examined the on-screen visuals used on ABC News and Yahoo News during live-streamed coverage. They found that the majority of the visuals were not focused on the policies being discussed but instead were about the strategies used by the candidate and the overall horse race. These visuals were often shared at the expense of issue and policy discussion.

These messages affect viewers by leading them to think more about the big winners and losers instead of what the candidates are actually saying.

The now-standard post-debate “debates” over who won and lost only exacerbate the situation. Studies show that post-debate discussions consistently influence perceptions of who won and who lost. Often, they may fully change a viewer’s belief about which candidate is in the lead.

In short, the news media’s spin on debates can have the effect of shaping viewers’ beliefs about the candidates as people rather than leading viewers to develop opinions on the issues.

More Screen Time Is Good

Twitter can be actually good. 

You know how you’re always being told to limit screen time and get off your phone when you’re doing something? When it comes to presidential debates, you can ignore that advice. A 2017 study from the University of Missouri showed that people who were engaged with Twitter in real-time while watching the 2016 debates actually walked away knowing more about the policies being discussed on state.

It turns out that if you’re not only watching the debate, you spend less time thinking about a candidate’s image and more time paying attention to campaign issues.

“This finding suggests that citizens’ political dialogue can transcend the usual attack of one’s political opponent and partisan criticism that is often featured on social media,” study author Ben Warner, Ph.D., explains. “We also confirmed that participants who engaged in issue tweeting had greater knowledge outcomes from their debate watching and scored higher on post-debate knowledge questions.”

We have about five more months of presidential campaigning, y’all. Get ready for it!