Having many liberal and conservative friends, I was struck last night watching comments posted by them on Facebook indicating that two different presidential debates were being seen throughout the country. And today, people are engaging in analysis of who won, whether they are cable television commentators or everyday people around the office water cooler.
Supporters of both President Obama and Governor Romney are concluding that their candidate won despite a less-than-fair forum. Although at the extreme such arguments might seem delusional or at least difficult to reconcile, the simple fact is that the social mind is engineered to view self-serving bias in situations such as these even when, objectively, the candidates performed similarly well.
Biased perceptions: My candidate is clearly right
When people have strong feelings on issues, it is impossible for them to view events objectively and dispassionately. Indeed, many classic studies in the psychological literature have demonstrated people's inability to view events impartially—instead, they view them in a self-serving fashion.
For example, students from Dartmouth and Princeton watched a film of a football game played in 1951 between the two schools with a lot of rough play and many penalties called. Although students from both schools were shown the same game, the students from each school reported that "the other team" initiated the rough play and committed more penalties. In short, people saw their own team as victims to others' unfair behavior, and both sides (in this case, Dartmouth and Princeton fans) viewed their team as better and more noble than the opposition (Hastorf & Cantril, 1954).
Turning to the debates, it's not surprising that backers of President Obama reported that Governor Romney interrupted Obama more often during the debate and that Governor Romney evaded more questions. At the same time, supporters of Governor Romney viewed the same injustices as being perpetrated by President Obama against their own preferred candidate. Indeed, selective perception and biased recall are very common among people with strong allegiances, whether they are political or athletic.
Hearing the opposition convinces me even more that my candidate is right
Interestingly, one might assume that when one is exposed to the opposition's message, people might reconsider their beliefs or critically revaluate one's positions. Yet, it is far more likely that supporters of President Obama or Governor Romney, after hearing both men plead their cases last night, became even more convinced that "their man" was even more right than ever before.
In a classic experiment on a phenomenon known as "biased assimilation," participants who already held strong pro- or anti-capital punishment positions read essays that were either supportive of the death penalty or opposed to the death penalty. Surprisingly, people's opinions became even more polarized after reading the opposition's arguments. For example, a pro-death penalty individual was even more in favor of capital punishment after reading an article criticizing the death penalty. Why would exposure to the opposition reinforce one's own beliefs? Researchers found that when exposed to arguments that ran contrary to one's own opinions, people derided the quality of the opposition's arguments and became even more convinced of their own initial convictions (Lord et al., 1979).
Thus, when considering the presidential debates, seeing "the opposition's candidate" make his case only serves to polarize one's own political attitudes. Obama supporters champion the number of new jobs created during the president's tenure while Romney supporters question why so many people remain out of work. Each side can focus on "their half of the half-filled glass" and when they pay attention to the "other half," they walk away with a perception that "their part of the glass" is even bigger than 50 percent! Hearing, but then actively refuting, one's opposition will only serve to further demonstrate the rightness of one's own initial beliefs. Thus, for most people, watching a presidential debate is an exercise is self-validation instead of open-minded consideration.
Blame the media
Finally, in addition to criticizing the opposition and extolling the virtues of one's own candidate, debates that are hosted with a moderator will provide supporters with yet another target to derogate—its moderator.
In yet another classic study, researchers examined how pro-Arab and pro-Israel students in the United States viewed relatively objective media coverage of an attack by Israeli security forces in Beirut during a civil war in Lebanon that resulted in many deaths at a refugee camp. People on both sides of the Arab-Israeli saw the media's coverage as slanted and unfair to their side. Once again, perception was self-serving instead of objective (Vallone et al., 1985).
Turning to last night's debate, CNN correspondent Candy Crowley moderated the debate and was criticized by both sides as not being fair to their candidate. For example, she attempted to provide fact-checking moments (e.g., how President Obama responded following the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya), siding with some comments that President Obama made on the morning after the attack but also siding with Governor Romney about the confusion that emanated during the two weeks following the attack. Rather than being viewed as a relatively objective arbitrator, partisans from both sides questioned Crowley's fairness in her comments that gave any credence to the opposition.
Overall, it is somewhat dismaying but not at all surprising that the debates, for most people, are exercises in self-validation rather than open-minded consideration. With the vast majority of the public in a clear position of support for one candidate that, barring some major revelation, will not change between now and election day, the debates provide a sporting event where fans root for the home team rather than listen and consider both sides' strengths and weaknesses.
Surely, there are some undecided voters who are using the debates as real opportunities to reflect on the candidates and developing opinions about who can best lead the United States. However, it's also clear that for the vast majority of those who watched last night, their social and self-serving minds all but prevented them from learning much or gaining new insights.