2008 Archives

When Your Political Opinion Isn't Yours Alone

Broadcasts of Political Debates That Include Live Audience Feedback Can Influence What You're Thinking -- Hecklers Can, Too


The following is from the Oct. 10, 2008, edition of The Wall Street Journal. SMU Professors Rita Kirk and Dan Schill of Meadows School of the Arts provided expertise for this story.

October 10, 2008

The Wall Street Journal

During Tuesday night's presidential debate, Sen. Barack Obama was talking about health care, and most of 25 undecided voters in Columbus, Ohio, liked what they heard. They turned knobs on small, wireless dials in their hands -- and a graph representing their immediate reaction was aired live to about 9.2 million people watching CNN.

CNN has aired these squiggly lines live on the bottom of the screen for all of the debates held since September. Some have called the readout addictive, others find it distracting.

But live feedback graphics may have another effect. Recent psychological experiments suggest they can influence viewers' judgments. That might give tiny focus groups outsize influence, especially over undecideds. But there is a broader question: How much of our political opinions are our own? . . .

Often, the groups turn their dials up when they hear specific plans, like Sen. John McCain's desire for tax cuts or Sen. Obama's charges against CEOs' golden parachutes. By contrast, they turn them down when candidates repeat obvious catchphrases or go on the attack, said Rita Kirk, a professor of communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University who is running CNN's focus groups.

 On-screen charts are just one of a host of outside factors that might influence judgments. Some have argued polls can have a "bandwagon effect." Debate spin is often based on the idea that framing the discussion can shape views. And reactions among fellow debate watchers can have as profound an effect as a laugh track.

Two studies published in the last two years suggest continuous-reaction graphs can affect opinions -- at least in an experimental setting. In one, led by a researcher at Emory University, 253 college students evaluated "American Idol"-like performances with fake audience feedback superimposed on screen. Those who saw negative reactions themselves viewed the performances more negatively. . .

SMU's Dr. Kirk said she and her colleagues had discussed whether airing the focus group's reactions in real time would sway viewers' opinions. But they decided that it was more likely to keep viewers engaged.

Dan Schill, another SMU professor who conducts the CNN focus groups with Dr. Kirk, said the two studies are valuable, but that more empirical data are needed. Voters watching an actual debate have far more at stake than students in an artificial experiment, he said.

"Our argument is that when people see the dials, it sparks conversation," said Dr. Kirk, who has been studying how technology can increase civic engagement.

Read the full story.


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