Political Debates and Cognitive Bias

Debates are important aspects of campaigns—they help voters get to know the candidates and learn about their proposed policies. However, when we watch political debates, we have to be on guard against our cognitive biases, such as ingroup bias or confirmation bias, which can lead us to misinterpret information and make unfair political judgements. We all have cognitive biases, since we all need to be able to quickly categorize the world around us in order to function. It’s a problem when these cognitive shortcuts lead us to act in discriminatory or unjust ways.

Use this Teaching Idea to introduce a political debate to your students and to question the impact that cognitive biases can have on our decisions about which candidates to support. 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 their biases, and then after they watch the debate, to analyze what they saw and draw conclusions.

  1. Introduce the Democratic Primary Debate

    Show your students photos of the candidates who will be participating in the debate and ask them to answer the questions in the “Before you Watch the Debate” section of the Political Debate Viewing Guide.

    Note: If you are focusing on the Democratic primary debates, you can find photos and descriptions of the candidates in Who’s Running for President in 2020  from the New York Times or The 2020 U.S. Presidential Race: A Cheat Sheet  from The Atlantic.

    Ask your students to write down their answers individually, then discuss with a partner, and finally, share as a class.

  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.1

    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.”2

    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? Can you think of examples of how political rivals seek to demonize each other?
    • Is ingroup bias ever useful? Is it unfair, given polarization in our country, to assume that we already know something about a candidate based on their party?
    • 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?
  3. How Can Confirmation Bias Impact How We Watch the Debates?

    Begin by playing the video Can You Solve This?. 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.3

    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?
  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?

Extension: Implicit Bias

Implicit biases can also impact the way people view different political candidates. Consider teaching all or part of our Teaching Idea Responding to #Living While Black to explore what implicit bias is and how it affects us.

Additional Resources


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