GE2010: The Leaders' Debates

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

I haven’t been watching the leaders debate thus far, and to be honest it’s probably unlikely that I will watch it – this is not because I am particularly disengaged or disenfranchised with modern day politics (as many are), though partly because I object to the “pseudo-presidential” direction British politics appears to be heading in.

I’m also not watching because I can probably predict that my own pre-existing political biases would have guided my perception of the event, as I suspect they have many other peoples, and affect who I judge as having done well.

This is a phenomenon that has been of interest to psychologists since the Nixon/Kennedy debates in the late sixties, where partisanship had a great influence on how people viewed the debates: Nixon’s supporters believing Nixon had done the job to beat Kennedy, and Kennedy supporters believing the reverse. History teaches us that Kennedy’s supporters may have been correct, but psychology teaches us that it’s likely that the debates made little difference.

The classic finding from AMERICAN VOTER is that partisanship determines political perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1960), and research undertaken by Kenski and Shroud in 2005 indicates that partisanship predicts debate watching. Thus it seems likely that the kind of people who are watching debates are those who are already engaged in politics, and are already partisan in their outlook.

Taber and Lodge (2006) have argued:

“One’s prior beliefs and attitudes—whether scientific or social—should ‘anchor’ the evaluation of new information” (p.755)

Jamieson and Adasiewicz (2000) have also noted that pre-debate attitudes can foster biases in information processing toward the reinforcement of one’s pre-existing belief structures. All of which implies that the kind of people who watch debates are more than likely partisan rather than neutral, and that the debate does more to reinforce their pre-existing bias rather than challenge it. Sigelman and Sigelman (1984) have echoed these claims within the context of studying political debate effects, by arguing

…only when the powerful impacts of prior beliefs and preferences are considered can one fully understand” the role of debates in election outcomes (p. 627).

Holbert et al (2009) summarise the issue as follows:

Indeed, a great deal of past research has revealed debate viewing serving the function of reinforcement rather than producing much change in individual-level attitudes or behaviors (e.g., Benoit, McKinney, & Holbert, 2001; Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988; Katz & Feldman, 1962; Sears & Chaffee, 1979; Zhu, Milavasky, & Biswas, 1994). More recently, Holbert (2005a) identified debate viewing as serving to enhance partisan reinforcement of vote choice in the 2000 American general presidential election using American National Election Study (ANES) data. This finding of partisan reinforcement was also replicated by Holbert using 1996 ANES data for that year’s presidential race.

So when people are watching Brown, Cameron and Clegg’s verbal sparring, it is unlikely that they will change their minds on the issues, or indeed on their voting intentions. Which leads me to the conclusion, ironically that best suits my own biases and prejudices against debates such as this, that this debate serves little more than a rallying point for respective supporters of each party, and as cheap entertainment for the television networks.

Of course, I could be wrong, and the British response to televised debate could be entirely different from our cousins across the pond: although I kind of doubt it.

If you are of a scientific or skeptical mindset, and want to see which candidates are better on science, you can check out The Science Vote campaign, and if you want to know who the most wooful MPs are, you can check out Skeptical Voter.