How To Watch A Debate Without Bias

Technicians set up the stage for the Sept. 26 presidential debate between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Patrick Semansky/AP hide caption

toggle caption Patrick Semansky/AP

Tonight is the first of three debates between Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The debates, sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, have the stated mission of offering “the best possible information to viewers and listeners” in the lead-up to the general election.

There’s just one problem. Decades of research suggests that voting decisions are influenced by quite a few factors beyond the “best possible information.” For instance, people’s perceptions of politicians can be influenced by their height: Taller men are, on average, perceived to be more competent. Using data from past U.S. presidential elections, one analysis found that candidates who were taller than their opponents received more popular votes and were more likely to be reelected. (They were not, however, more likely to win initial elections.)

Sensitive to the influence of height, some debates have allowed a sort of prosthetic: In the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, lectern heights were selected such that neither candidate would appear taller than his opponent. For this year’s debates, the commission has apparently allowed for a custom-made podium that will accommodate the candidates’ difference in stature.

As viewers or listeners, most of us won’t have a say in podium heights — let alone the structure of the debates or the questions posed to candidates. We can, however, take other measures to help ourselves overcome some of the biases that could distort our perceptions of the candidates and the debates. Consider these cognitive correctives — five tips from the psychological sciences for watching a debate without (quite as much) bias:

1. On election day, our opinion of how each candidate performed in the debates won’t be shaped directly by what they said or did, but by our memories and impressions of what they said or did. And memory is a funny thing. We tend to remember what came first and last better than the bits in the middle, and our overall impression is especially influenced by an event’s peak (the point of maximum intensity or salience) and its end. Subsequent media coverage is likely to exaggerate these existing tendencies by focusing on a small number of “peak” points. But a lot of the less salient middle will undoubtedly contain important information about each candidate’s adequacy for the job.

Tip #1 is not to reduce the debate to its sound bites, neither those the media provides us with nor the ones our own memories tend to produce.

2. Political issues can be pretty complex, yet we often think we understand them better than we do. Trying to explain them, it turns out, can be a valuable corrective, helping us appreciate that we don’t know what we thought we did. For instance, many people have opinions about issues like cap-and-trade systems for carbon emissions, but don’t actually understand what they are or what their implications would be.

When it comes to evaluating each candidate’s policies, solid understanding is an important prerequisite to clear judgment.

Tip #2 is to help yourself overcome illusions of political understanding by explaining a given issue or policy to someone else — or even to yourself. The next step is to become better informed, so you know what your vote will really be supporting.

3. Stereotypes about men and women can inadvertently affect the way we perceive individuals. For instance, several studies have found that women are judged differently from men for exhibiting the same behaviors. What is taken as a sign of competence and leadership for a man might be judged overly aggressive or blunt for a woman. At the same time, conforming to more nurturing female stereotypes can make a woman better-liked, but deemed less fit for a position of authority. Biases about men and woman can be subtle — they can manifest even in those who hold explicitly egalitarian views, and women can exhibit them to the same degree as men.

Unfortunately, gender bias isn’t like height: There’s no simple corrective to counteract gender bias in our evaluations of political candidates. However, there’s reason to believe such biases play a greater role when we consider general impressions in an unstructured way. If we judge Clinton and Trump by the first debate examples that come to mind, for example, there’s plenty of room for nonconscious processes to influence what we come up with. If we instead engage in more structured recall — by, for instance, comparing what was good and bad about each candidate’s performance, or by comparing what each proposed with regard to a particular issue and evaluating the proposals along pre-defined dimensions — we can potentially help mitigate the influence of gender-based biases.

Tip #3 is to recognize your gender bias. This isn’t always easy to do, but evaluating the candidates in more structured and concrete ways is a strategy worth trying out.

4. There’s lots of evidence that all else being equal, we judge confident people more competent and reliable. For instance, we’re more likely to believe the testimony of a confident eyewitness, even though the correlation between confidence and accuracy can be low. Research in domains including medicine, geopolitics and finance has also found that expert confidence can be a very poor guide to accuracy.

Both presidential candidates are likely to appear confident in the debates. But both their absolute and relative levels of confidence shouldn’t be treated as good evidence for the quality of their arguments or the viability of their policies.

Tip #4 is to go with content over confidence.

5. The final tip comes from a large body of research on a phenomenon called confirmation bias. In many contexts, we selectively expose ourselves to observations that will support what we believe. If liberals only follow liberal debate commentary and conservatives only follow conservative debate commentary, no one is likely to end up with a full understanding of what transpired. Beyond selective exposure is a phenomenon known as biased assimilation: A Democrat and a Republican exposed to the same evidence might respond in very different ways. For instance, people tend to be less critical of arguments that support conclusions they endorse, and they correspondingly subject arguments that yield opposing conclusions to greater scrutiny.

Tip #5 is to be non-partisan in your debate-related media consumption, and to be extra critical of the arguments supporting positions you favor. Doing so will help ensure that you’re evaluating the candidates on their merits — and not simply reinforcing what you already believe.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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Golfer Arnold Palmer, Who Gave New Life To A Staid Game, Dies At 87

Arnold Palmer acknowledges the crowd after hitting the ceremonial first tee shot at the 2007 Masters tournament. David J. Phillip/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

toggle caption David J. Phillip/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Golfing legend Arnold Palmer has died at 87.

He died Sunday late evening at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Shadyside, a tertiary care hospital in Pittsburgh. NPR confirmed his His death with UPMC’s media relations manager, Stephanie Stanley and in a statement by United States Golf Association issued via Twitter.

Palmer won 62 PGA Tour events, fifth on the all-time list. He won golf’s biggest titles: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open. He won seven majors in all.

We are deeply saddened by the death of Arnold Palmer, golf’s greatest ambassador, at age 87.

— USGA (@USGA) September 26, 2016

But it wasn’t just the numbers that made Palmer an iconic sports figure.


He wasn’t the greatest male golfer of all time. That title usually prompts a debate about Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods or Ben Hogan, maybe Sam Snead. But the most important player? It’s fairly unanimous that Arnold Palmer was, true to his nickname, the King.

Palmer strapped a moldy, staid game on his back and gave it new life. He ignited golf’s popularity in the 1960s as he became the sport’s first TV star.

“He was someone who looked like an NFL halfback,” says senior writer Ian O’Connor. “He had arms like a blacksmith and giant hands, and he had those rugged good looks. He was just a different golfer. Nobody had ever really seen anything like him in that sport.”

Palmer’s arrival as a champion pro in the late 1950s dovetailed with the emerging medium of television.

Arnold Palmer, left, and his friend and often-rival Jack Nicklaus, after winning a team event in 1966 in West Palm Beach, Fla. Toby Massey/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

toggle caption Toby Massey/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Whether he was winning or pitching products, Palmer’s looks, athleticism and talent made him a natural for TV.

But that was only part of what transformed admiring fans into a devoted following that became known as Arnie’s Army.


Palmer grew up in a working class home in Latrobe, Pa., and ultimately he brought the game to the same kinds of people.

“Golf was always considered a blue blood, country club, elitist sport,” says O’Connor. “Arnold Palmer gave the sport to people who worked for members of the country club set.”

Palmer hangs his head after a double bogey on the ninth hole during the third round of the PGA Championship in Ligonier, Pa., in 1965. wfa/AP hide caption

toggle caption wfa/AP

He’d play with his shirt tail hanging out. He’d flick away a cigarette before hitting, then swing for the fences and grimace like an average duffer if the result was bad. O’Connor says the class conflict was a motivating factor in Palmer’s career.

So was Palmer’s dad, known as Deacon.


Milfred J. “Deacon” Palmer was a greenskeeper, golf pro, and, Arnold often said, the man who taught him everything he knew. Deacon was known for his honesty, and toughness. Especially with his son.

“He was tough on me. He never backed off,” Palmer said in a 2015 interview. “He played tough, worked hard, and he died a tough guy. He played 27 holes of golf the day he passed.”

It was Deacon who introduced Arnold to golf, with the instructions “hit it hard, boy. Go find it and hit it again.”

Palmer’s mom Doris softened the hard edges. A friendly woman, golf historians say Doris Palmer gave Arnold his people skills, which were a critical part of his legacy.


Arnold Palmer was a genuinely nice guy.


“I’ve often said that Arnold puts up with people that neither you or I would put up with,” says Doc Giffin.

He was Palmer’s personal assistant for more than 50 years. Giffin remembers the many moments of Palmer walking among throngs of fans as he strode down fairways – the King and his army. Or, Palmer talking to people in the gallery, joking with them, making paying customers feel like he wanted them there at the course.

Palmer would also take great care when signing autographs. One of his pet peeves was modern day athletes scribbling their names. Illegible autographs, Palmer thought, cheapened the fan’s experience.

But judging by his golfing success, Palmer knew when to tune out the adoring masses and focus on himself.

Palmer, center, signs autographs at the Texas Open in 1962. Ted Powers/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

toggle caption Ted Powers/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Most of the time.

There was that final hole of the final round of the 1961 Masters. Palmer had a one-stroke lead.

“And [he] had the ball in the fairway at the 18th hole,” Giffin says, “and he saw a friend of his over at the ropes who waved him over. And he walked over there instead of staying with his golf ball. The man congratulated him on winning his second straight Masters (Palmer won in 1960). He said ‘thank you,’ went back to his ball, and knocked it in the trap.”

Palmer ended up with a six on the par-4, and he walked off the final green one stroke behind.

“And lost the Masters that it looked like he had it in the bag,” Giffin says. “And he said I’ll never let that happen again. And he learned his lesson.”

Palmer made amends a year later at the same tournament. In a playoff, he made a back-nine charge to win the 1962 Masters.


Our greatest sports heroes often have a foil. In Palmer’s case, it was Jack Nicklaus.

In his book Arnie and Jack, Ian O’Connor chronicles a 50-year duel on golf courses and boardrooms, as the two men competed in the business world as well. Personality-wise, they were, at least in the early years of their rivalry, polar opposites. Palmer was the people’s champ — gregarious, comfortable in crowds, a go-for-broke style of player. Nicklaus, about 10 years younger, was reserved, some say aloof and more scientific about the game.

Nicklaus easily beat Palmer in the record books. His 18 major titles still are the most anyone’s won. Palmer had seven. But Palmer had the adoring fans.

Palmer, right, with Jack Nicklaus at the Masters in 2016. Charlie Riedel/AP hide caption

toggle caption Charlie Riedel/AP

For all their battles through the 1960’s, O’Connor says it was a moment in the early 2000s that prompted him to write his book.

Palmer and Nicklaus were well past their primes. O’Connor figures Arnie was in his early 70s and Jack, early 60s. They were paired together for a round at the Masters.

“They were putting on a green and Arnold finished,” O’Connor remembers, “and he picked up his ball and he walked over to the fans circling the green, and he sat down in a guy’s chair. Everyone got a big laugh. Meanwhile, Jack is standing over a putt and he’s grinding. He’s trying to make the cut, trying to contend, trying to win despite his age!”

“And he looked up and he shot Arnold a really angry stare. If looks could kill! And I happened to be there and it struck me that these guys have been battling, on and off the course, for so long. It’s probably the greatest rivalry in the sport’s history. That was the first seed [of the book].”

O’Connor says the two men competed on golf course design projects; they even competed for status as the top ambassador of the game.

But O’Connor says there’s no question the rivalry was tempered by friendship.

“I think deep down,” says O’Connor, “Jack knows he couldn’t have been Jack without Arnie and Arnie knows he couldn’t have been Arnie without Jack. There is respect and affection there.”


Palmer was a friend of presidents, but a man who never forgot his roots. He lived half the year in his native Latrobe. His dual appeal — charisma and humility — didn’t organically turn Palmer into a global, celebrity athlete. That happened with the help of Mark McCormack, whose IMG became the biggest sports marketing company in the world. Palmer was McCormack’s first major client.

While the two of them spread Palmer’s fame, golf started to boom. The number of players and courses increased dramatically in the 1960s. By some accounts, in the early part of the decade, Palmer’s heyday, 350 to 400 new courses were built each year.

It wasn’t all Palmer’s doing. But he lit a fuse. With equal parts swagger and humility when he played.

And a smile for strangers who came to the course to watch a golfer, and left feeling like they’d been touched by a King.

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