Thursday, September 25, 2008

Presidential Debates and Learning

Do people learn from presidential debates?

Yes. A majority of studies show a connection between watching the debates and campaign issue knowledge. Now this gets tricky. Are politically interested folks drawn to watch debates and therefore do better on such tests? Obviously yeah, but often these studies statistically control for many of the factors associated with what people know (education, age, etc.). In a few, controlled experiments attempted to tease out the effects.

However, a few studies have failed to find a connection between learning and viewing debates. In some cases, to use doctoral PhDweebspeak, "it depends." It depends on the kind of campaign, the kind of candidates, the kind of questions one asks. It's a difficult area to study.

In general, if one carefully reads the literature, you'll find televised debates do improve issue knowledge, issue salience (how important certain issues are to you), and evaluations of the candidates (from likability to perceptions of competence and character).

Okay, but how about those irritating post-debate analyses?

One of my first studies as a graduate student was of the 1988 debates and I remember sitting in a room as students watched the infamous Lloyd Bensen/Dan Quayle vice presidential debate.

Students had a thingie where they signalled emotional response to whatever the candidates said. Fun, especially when the famous "you're no Jack Kennedy" line spilled out. Crazy data.

But what we were interested in was not infamous quips but the effects of the analyses after the debate.

Students watched and were then assigned to either watch the analysis or a filler program. We found that analyses damped partisan reactions, which kinda worked opposite of what we expected. With selective attention we figured hearing about the debates would lead to more extreme feelings either way, depending on your predispositions. Theory said so. Instead we found hearing people from both sides talking about the debate actually reduced extreme opinions.

Needless to say this was opposite what most others found and a book later on debates attacked that study. Hell, we were grad students, making it up as we went. The research ended up as a conference paper but never in publication. Probably best for all.

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