March 31, 2011

Winners of televised election debates, or, hoi polloi are easily swayed

The authors seem to argue that the ease with which viewers of electoral debates were swayed by scientifically-clad distortion in the form of the "worm" is a danger to democracy. Certainly, their study should be worrisome for anyone invested in the good function of modern democratic polities, i.e., most of us.

However, I would argue that the study brings to the forefront an even greater problem: the ease with which voters are swayed. The effect of the distorted worm was non-trivial:

Advocates of democracy often claim that this form of constitution is superior because the outcome of an election is determined by the balance of interests of most people in society.

Yet, experiments such as this show that rather than a balance of rational interests, it may be a balance of influences by political marketers who act in many more ways than just the "worm" that determine who wins an election.

PLoS ONE 6(3): e18154. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0018154

Social Influence in Televised Election Debates: A Potential Distortion of Democracy

Colin J. Davis et al.


A recent innovation in televised election debates is a continuous response measure (commonly referred to as the “worm”) that allows viewers to track the response of a sample of undecided voters in real-time. A potential danger of presenting such data is that it may prevent people from making independent evaluations. We report an experiment with 150 participants in which we manipulated the worm and superimposed it on a live broadcast of a UK election debate. The majority of viewers were unaware that the worm had been manipulated, and yet we were able to influence their perception of who won the debate, their choice of preferred prime minister, and their voting intentions. We argue that there is an urgent need to reconsider the simultaneous broadcast of average response data with televised election debates.


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