Thursday, 7 April 2011

Live worm during political TV debates could be a threat to democracy

It seems like sports pundits and political commentators are engaged in a private competition to see who can make the most use of the latest graphical wizardry. Whilst the former 'draw' in white pen over video stills of matches, a recent political toy is to present a live 'worm' during election debates, depicting the fluctuating average emotional ratings recorded by a group of undecided voters. The horizontal squiggle, which appears on-screen during the debate, veers upwards when the group like what they hear and slopes downwards when they don't.

The gizmo was deployed in the UK during the three live TV Prime Ministerial Debates shown prior to the 2010 general election, and has been used in many other countries including the US and Australia. It may seem like fun, but a new study by psychologists claims it's a threat to a healthy democracy.

Colin Davis and colleagues recruited 150 undergrads to watch the third and final Prime Ministerial debate live, which was broadcast on BBC One and, like the others, featured the Labour incumbent Gordon Brown, Conservative party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Unbeknown to the participants, the researchers doctored the broadcast, overlaying their own version of the worm. Half the participants saw a version in which the worm was biased in favour of Brown, the other half saw a version in which it was biased in favour of Clegg.

The killer finding is that the participants' own subsequent perception of the debate was influenced by the manipulated worm. In the Brown-biased group, 47 per cent felt Brown had won (vs. 35 per cent who thought Clegg and 13 per cent who thought Cameron). In contrast, in the Clegg-biased group, 79 per cent felt he'd won (vs. 9 per cent for Brown and 4 per cent for Cameron).

The participants' own prior candidate preference was the strongest factor affecting their judgements but crucially, even after this was taken into account, the worm still played a strong part in participants' judgments of who won the debate. This was true even when participants said they disagreed with the verdict of the worm.

Perhaps most worryingly, the biased worm also affected participants' subsequent claims about who was their preferred prime minister. A related further detail is that the worm's influence exceeded participants' perceptions of the worm's movement (based on their answer to the question: 'Based on the movements of the worm, which leader do you think did best?') This suggests it could be difficult for viewers of political debates to deliberately discount the influence of the worm.

It's worth remembering too, that in real life, the movement of the worm is based on the live ratings given by a small sample of just 20 to 30 people, often recruited from nearby the television studio - hardly a representative group. 'In sum,' the researchers said, 'our data indicate that viewers exposed to the worm are subject to social influence processes which later form the basis of their opinions. Thus, the responses of a small group of individuals could, via the worm, influence millions of voters. This possibility is not conducive to a healthy democracy.'

ResearchBlogging.orgDavis, C., Bowers, J., and Memon, A. (2011). Social Influence in Televised Election Debates: A Potential Distortion of Democracy PLoS ONE, 6 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018154 

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

[The image is a detail taken from a figure in the journal article].

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