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Hey, CNN: I'll Analyze My Own Debate Perceptions, Thank You

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Tonight's first presidential debate just ended, and I've reached an important decision. No, nothing to do with whom to vote for. Rather, I've decided that I'm buying one of those perception analyzer dials so that I can give on-line ratings of everyone I interact with all day long.

What's that you say, my car needs new tires in addition to the brake fluid and oil filter? Give me a moment, I need to adjust my dial downward.

Seriously, who at CNN decided that it isn't good enough to show us a post-debate focus group full of professional vacillators, and that instead we need to see how other people react to the debate as it's going on?

Sure, debate spin has been ridiculous for as long as I have followed politics. Ever since I can remember, watching a debate has required a 90 minute investment sitting through the event itself, followed by another 90 minutes of wading through the expert commentary afterward so that you can find out what the conventional wisdom is going to be regarding who won. But now we don't even have to wait until the debate's over to have other people tell us what to think.

If the idea of having these ratings on the screen during the live debate sounds to you a lot like a psychological experiment on conformity, that's because it basically is. In 2007 psychologists published a series of studies conducted at Williams College in which participants watched actual political debates. The main finding? Other people's reactions greatly color how we see 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 a video with the audience response edited out. Indeed, it seems there's a good reason so many sitcoms air with live audience responses or inserted laugh tracks.

In another study in the paper, several groups of students watched a debate together in various locales. In these different rooms, the researchers planted 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 stronger when they had watched the debate in a room with vocal supporters of that candidate.

And then in yet another study, the researchers beat CNN to the punch. They had participants watch a debate while seeing on a monitor the purported reactions of other viewers who were supposedly using the very same dials CNN now uses. What did they find? As you'll expect by now, these live ratings, which were actually controlled by the researchers themselves, influenced how viewers saw the debate.

Of course, the big difference is that the researchers were conducting an empirical study, whereas CNN is supposed to be a news channel giving us an unfiltered view of the debate. I have no reason to doubt the motivations of the network; I assume they're just following the trend of trying to one-up their competitors with technological prowess and sheer information overload. (I mean, by this point, I'm half convinced that John King can control the ocean tides with his magic touch screens, so this is just another tool in the competitive network effort to wow us.)

But it just seems like a Pandora's Box not worth opening. What's to stop a network with an agenda from stacking the deck for their focus group in the effort to steer viewer attitudes in a particular direction? Or from just cutting out the middle man altogether and simply manipulating the data as researchers do in the lab?

The debate commission and respective campaigns seem aware of the risks of social influence. They appear to have read up on their Solomon Asch. After all, they're serious enough about addressing the problem to have muzzled the live audience in each debate hall. So wouldn't it make sense to tell the networks to at least wait until the event is over before they start telling everyone how to think about what they've seen?

Or maybe it's just too much to ask for us to get 90 minutes to watch these debates in peace.

Like this post? Then check out the website for Sam's new book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World, (now available!). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Catch Sam's recent TEDx talk on the power of context below: