Elections, Debates, and Cognitive Bias

Last updated September 22, 2020. Originally published in 2019.

Debates are important aspects of elections—ideally, they can help voters get to know the candidates and learn about their proposed policies. However, our ability to think critically about what we see and hear in debates is often distorted by common cognitive biases. This Teaching Idea helps students recognize how our cognitive biases—such as ingroup bias or confirmation bias—can affect how we interpret information and candidates’ performances during a political debate, and ways we can instead focus on evaluating the substance of the candidates’ responses.

Use this Teaching Idea to introduce the 2020 presidential debates between President Trump and former Vice President Biden and to reflect on factors that shape our political judgments. This Teaching Idea can also be used in connection with other elections and debates on the state, local, or national level.

This Teaching Idea uses our Political Debate Viewing Guide, which is designed to help students reflect on the thoughts and feelings they already have about candidates, build an awareness of cognitive biases, and then after they watch the debate, analyze what they saw and draw conclusions.

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Get student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. How Can Debates Influence Voters?

    Ask your students to answer the first two questions in the “Before you Watch the Debate” section of the Political Debate Viewing Guide:

    1. Why do we have political debates?
    2. How should we evaluate a candidate’s performance in a debate?

    Share the following passage with your students about the first ever televised presidential debate, from the CNN article The Day Politics and TV Changed Forever:

    On radio, most pundits and polls scored the September 26, 1960, debate between presidential candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy a draw, with some giving the Republican contender [Nixon] the edge.

    But on television, it was no contest.

    Throughout the 60-minute program set in a Chicago TV studio, the 43-year-old Kennedy "looked to be radiating health," said presidential historian Robert Gilbert. Kennedy wore a dark suit and had a wide smile and vivid tan.

    Nixon, on the other hand, appeared pale and a bit listless. He had just gotten out of the hospital, where he had lost weight after a knee injury. In a gray, ill-fitting suit and hastily added pancake makeup, Nixon looked—even if he did not necessarily sound—a pale shadow of the aggressive, composed senator from Massachusetts.

    "I was listening to it on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job," former Sen. Bob Dole . . . recalled in a PBS interview. "Then I saw the TV clips the next morning, and he . . . didn't look well. Kennedy was young and articulate and . . . wiped him out."1

    Discuss with your students:

    • According to this passage, how do viewers of political debates judge the candidates’ performances?
    • How do candidates use their appearance, body language, or posture to project certain messages to viewers?
    • Do debates privilege style over substance in a way that might distort good decision-making? Or is this kind of performance indicative of the skills that leaders need? What are other ways voters can gather information about candidates?

    Then, ask your students to answer the rest of the questions in the “Before you Watch the Debate” section of the Political Debate Viewing Guide. Ask them to write down their answers individually, then discuss with a partner, and finally, share as a class.

    Remote Learning Note: Students can complete the first section of the viewing guide and read the passage from the CNN article individually and asynchronously. Ask students to discuss their responses during a synchronous session or in an online discussion forum.

  2. How Does Ingroup Bias Impact How We View Politics?

    Share the following quote from the Huffington Post article Too Many Americans Treat Politics Like Just Another Sport, And It’s Causing Problems with your students:

    . . . a lot of Americans view politics more as just another sport than as a selection process by which we choose the men and women who will decide the rules that govern so many aspects of our daily lives.2

    Discuss with your students: What do you think it means for politics if voters view elections in the same way that they view sports?

    Then, share the next passage from the Huffington Post article with your students:

    In essence, Democrats and Republicans hate one another for the same reason Los Angeles Lakers fans and Boston Celtics fans despise one another—not because of the values the other holds, but simply because they are supporters of the rival team.

    “Too many partisans are saying, ‘My side is good; the other side is evil. We have to go beat them,’” Patrick Miller, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said in a release. “They’re our rivals, like Kansas or Missouri, Duke or North Carolina. And that sense of animosity and demonization is really motivating average partisans to participate in politics, much more so than issues or ideology.”3

    Tell your students that the phenomenon this article describes is called ingroup bias, and share a definition of this term with your students:

    Ingroup bias refers to our tendency to support the members of our group more than people who are in other groups. When it comes to politics, this means that we tend to automatically support members of our own political party or movement, while we are automatically suspicious of members of other political parties.

    Finally, ask your students:

    • In what ways can ingroup bias create problems in politics? Do you think ingroup bias can ever be useful?
    • Can you think of examples of how political rivals try to provoke ingroup bias in voters or seek to demonize each other? Why might a candidate use emotional appeals that play on existing biases?
    • How can ingroup bias affect people when they watch political debates? When do you experience ingroup bias? How can you recognize when ingroup bias is problematic?

    Remote Learning Note: Ask students to read the passages individually ahead of time, using the Slides for this activity. Then, ask students to discuss the final questions together, either during a synchronous session or on an online discussion forum.

  3. How Can Confirmation Bias Impact How We Watch the Debate?

    Explain to students that there are other kinds of biases that can influence people's judgment when thinking about politics. They are going to watch a video that illustrates confirmation bias by asking people to determine the rule governing a sequence of three numbers. Even though it is an exercise involving numbers, this test can provide insight into how we process information in politics and other parts of our lives.

    Play the video Can You Solve This? for your students. Stop the video at 1:10 and ask students if they can guess the rule. Ask them to explain their thinking. Then play the video to the end.

    After finishing the video, ask your students: Why do people have trouble guessing the rule?

    Then, share this summary of a study on confirmation bias and politics with your students:

    Researchers recruited two groups of people to participate in a study: people who were in favor of the death penalty and those who were against it. The researchers asked the participants to read studies, half of which had evidence supporting the death penalty and half of which had evidence against it. At the end of the experiment, all of the participants felt even more strongly about their original stances on the death penalty. Why? Because they focused only on the evidence that supported their prior beliefs and ignored the rest.4

    Ask your students: What does the video and this research suggest about how people might approach information they get about political candidates?

    Then, share a definition of confirmation bias with your students:

    Confirmation bias, or the selective collection of evidence, is our subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and/or hypotheses. Therefore, confirmation bias is both affected by and feeds our implicit biases. It can be most entrenched around beliefs and ideas that we are strongly attached to or that provoke a strong emotional response.

    Finally, place your students into groups and ask them to answer the following questions together to come up with a confirmation bias strategy:

    • How can you recognize when confirmation bias occurs?
    • How can you tell when confirmation bias is unjust or discriminatory?
    • How should you address your own confirmation bias in politics?

    Remote Learning Note: Ask students to watch the video Can You Solve This? and read the passages individually ahead of time, using the Slides for this activity. Then, ask students to discuss the final questions in small groups, either in a virtual breakout room during a synchronous session or on an online discussion forum.

  4. Watch the Debate and Reflect

    Either play a short clip of the debate in class or ask your students to watch all or part of the debate at home. As they watch the debate, students should take notes on their Political Debate Viewing Guide. After students watch the debate, whether in class or at home, ask them to use the final section of the guide to reflect on what they saw.

    End with an individual reflection. Students can respond to the following prompt in their journals:

    After learning about ingroup and confirmation bias, did you notice either of them influencing how you thought or felt about the debate while you watched it? If so, did recognizing its influence change how you responded to the debate?

    Remote Learning Note: Ask students to watch the debate at home and fill out the final section of the guide as they watch. Ask students to share their viewing guide and their final reflection with you once they are finished.

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