This Will Make You Less Savvy During Tonight's Debate

This Will Make You Less Savvy During Tonight's Debate

Why you should care

Because we’re less than a month from the election and most of us want to go into it as informed citizens.


It’s another round of must-see TV tonight: Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump, the sequel, and what could be another record-breaking ratings bonanza. But let’s admit it: You’re not really watching that closely, are you? Because your laptop is open, your phone nearby, and those social media feeds are buzzing.

Yet all the emojis in the world won’t make you smarter about selecting the next president, research shows.

The knowledge you get from watching television debates is compromised as you busily shoot out all those social media updates.

The first presidential debate marked Twitter’s inaugural livestreaming of the event, but that’s not necessarily a good thing “if we care about what debates are supposed to do — make sure people vote for a candidate aligned with their preferences,” says Bruce Hardy, an assistant professor at Temple University. Viewers with multiple screens open learned less, not more, found a study that Hardy co-authored and was recently published in Political Communication.

Sure, we’ve all heard the argument that multitasking can be bad, but the issue here actually has roots far deeper in the human psyche.

Your brain’s amygdala, which houses subconscious fight-or-flight reflexes, puts greater importance on sudden actions. That means if you succumb to your evolutionary instincts, you’re much more likely to remember a shocking verbal put-down than a well-meaning discussion about policy, explains Margie Meacham, author of Brain Matters and founder of Learningtogo, which consults clients on using neuroscience to their advantage. Jabs like the Trumpian “why not?” or Clintonian “alternate reality” just stick longer — both in your mind and in the blogosphere.

Social media also creates a herd mentality, Meacham says, so some of those who use it are no longer sure where their opinions end and where their friends’ begin. Are you sure you thought that dis was sick, or did you just perk up because all your friends liked it on Facebook? And boy, getting that retweet feels great — for good reason. After all, you receive another jolt of chemicals, like oxytocin and dopamine — “the reward chemical,” Meacham says. “If you play devil’s advocate or challenge something a little, you don’t get that response. You just get rejection.”

Yes, Twitter and Facebook serve as effective and virtually live fact-checking tools, in ways that some moderators can’t. Making political discourse a communal activity could also encourage participation, and even Hardy agrees that watching a debate with social media is still better than not watching at all.

But those steady streams of updates today have a similar effect as live debate audiences, which, research shows, influence viewers at home through their cheers or jeers. So it may be time to protect democracy … by turning off your screen.

OZY2016

The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.