Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

When Professional Wrestling Meets Presidential Debate

When political debate audiences start sounding like sports fans, does it matter?

There's an old tongue-in-cheek line about going to see a fight and a hockey game broke out. Well, last night TV viewers tuned in to watch a presidential debate and an episode of Maury broke out.

If you haven't seen (or, more aptly, heard) the clips in question yet, here's one example of the raucous crowd reaction during portions of last night's GOP debate in Myrtle Beach, in this instance the crowd booing Juan Williams as he pursued a race-related line of questioning of Newt Gingrich:


This isn't the first time this election cycle that we've been talking about crowd reactions after a debate. There was the Republican debate in September in which audience members booed a gay soldier who asked Rick Santorum a question via video. That same month, there was the enthusiastic response to Wolf Blitzer asking Ron Paul if someone who became ill after choosing not to purchase medical coverage should be left to die. And so on.

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There are many questions to ask as political debate audiences continue to become more vocal–questions about why this is happening, whether the particular reactions are appropriate in each instance, whether steps should be taken to curtail such audience involvement, and so on.

One question we rarely ask, however, is whether these televised responses change the way that those of us at home feel about the candidates—probably because we assume the answer is a straightforward no. After all, most of fancy ourselves free-thinkers who make up our own minds, especially for topics as important as who we're going to vote for.

But are we really?

Behavioral science tells us that the people around us have a dramatic impact on how we think about and interact with our social universe. While we may sneer in disdain at the laugh track that's supposed to make the sitcom seem funnier or the celebrity endorsement that's supposed to make the consumer product seem more appealing, there must be some reason producers and advertisers keep shelling out big money for them. And why do comedies seem funnier in a crowded movie theater than when you watch them on your own at home?

In fact, if your laugh is contagious enough, you might just be able to find work these days as a professional sitcom laugher, paid to enhance the viewing experience of folks watching from the comfort of home. And in my new book, Situations Matter (an exploration of the power of context and the psychology of daily life) I interview Cameron Hughes, a Super Fan and expert crowd whisperer who's able to make a good living riling up spectators at sporting events across the globe.

The reactions of people around us can shape political opinions as well. In 2007 psychologists published a series of studies conducted at Williams College in which participants watched political debates. In one study, participants watched an old Reagan/Mondale debate in which Reagan had offered up some of his still-famous one-liners. Students who watched the complete broadcast, including the audience's response to these jokes, were more impressed with Reagan's performance than were those who watched the same debate but with the positive audience response edited out.

In another study, several groups of students watched a debate together in various locales. The researchers planted in the different rooms audience members who were instructed to react loudly and enthusiastically to some of the arguments offered by one of the candidates. Results indicated that participants tended to view the debate performance of a given candidate as significantly stronger when they had watched the debate in a room with vocal supporters of that candidate.

And, in yet another study, researchers had participants watch a debate while seeing on a monitor the purported reactions of other viewers (using one of those 1-100 rating dials the networks sometimes give their voter focus groups during a televised debate). What did they find? As you'll expect by now, these supposedly live voter ratings—which were, in actuality, controlled by the researchers themselves—influenced how viewers saw the debate.

So don't be so sure that the rollicking reactions of debate audiences have no effect on the rest of us, whether it's bringing along viewers through subtle processes of conformity or pushing observers in the opposite direction through the outrage of inappropriate response. Same goes for the post-debate spin we're subjected to, whether via panels of so-called experts or focus groups of supposedly still-undecided voters.

I know, I know... you're an independent-minded free-spirit who doesn't give into conformity or allow others to change how you view things.

But keep in mind, that's what everyone says.

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Like this post? Interested in the book? Then check out the website for Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (now available!).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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