Why Really Smart People Disagree On Who Won The Debate

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“Are you friggin’ kidding me?!” came the e-mails last night…

But, they werent’ about the candidates, they were about the panel of everyday listeners and pundits. During last night’s VP debate, CNN aired a real time scorecard that showed how it’s 6 pundits viewed who was winning and who was losing. Most scored a pretty close event, but Ed Rollins had Palin blowing Biden away.

Then, they moved to a group of 30 people who’d declared a party affiliation, but claimed to still be persuadable. Again, different people in the same room, watching the same debate, saw a very different event.

Were these people and pundits just being paid to spin? Were they trying to create controversy? Or did they legitimately believe they saw a totally different debate than others in the room?

How can intelligent, well-researched, thoughtful people with opposing views watch the exact same event and come away believing in their hearts that “their” candidate pummeled his or her opponent?

Is one person secretly just more stupid than the other? Are they lying?

Not at all. It’s not about intelligence, it’s about psychology.

More specifically…

The brainwashing lense of “Consistency.”

Robert Cialdini first wrote about the power of consistency some 30+ years ago in his epic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He revealed how we all have a deeply compelling need to act and speak consistently with actions we’ve already taken and things we’ve already said.

But, here’s the thing…

Our need to be consistent also causes us to view the actions and words of “others” in a way that supports what we’ve already said and done.

Because, if we view them otherwise, we’d feel like idiots for having taken the wrong action or position. And, we’d have to endure the discomfort and potential public ridicule that so often comes with admitting we were wrong and having to change our positions. Nobody wants to do that, it’s far more bearable to subconsciously filter the experience to deliver the outcome most consistent with our prior positions. Simply put…

The outcome that keeps us feeling safe, supported and right is the one we strive to believe unfolded.

So, no matter how much you claim to be able to observe and judge an event, like a debate, through the lense of pure objectivity, reality is, with rare exception, you just can’t do it. If you’ve already said something about the subject of the debate or taken a position on any candidate or issue, especially if you’ve made your position known to others, you will be strongly compelled to see the event in a way that is consistent with your prior statements and acts.

Barring some major gaff…

You will literally brainwash yourself into believing the person you want to win won.

And, you will have no idea this happened, because it’s not a conscious, willful decision. It just happens.

So, next time you ponder, exasperated, how really smart people, people who know the facts and have done the research, view the exact same event, like a debate, so differently than you, remember the consistency principle.

They’re not spinning it, they’re not just posturing or playing devil’s advocate (yes, many are, especially the ones you see on TV, but that’s not who I’m talking about).

They genuinely believe they saw what they needed to see to validate their prior acts and positions…and SO DO YOU!

So, what do you think? Am I totally off base here?

Are you immune to the consistency principle?

Let’s discuss…

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23 responses

23 responses to “Why Really Smart People Disagree On Who Won The Debate”

  1. You nailed it. That’s why sometimes it isn’t someone consciously being a hypocrite, they truly don’t think that the situation is the same or similar.

    Great post!

  2. Parth says:

    Well, I saw a glimpse of the debate last night, and I honestly believe that Palin was certainly the better debater. I’m voting Democrat all the way because the debates in no way will sway my vote. I know that every time a candidate comes on the podium in any event, speech or debate, the idea is to sell themselves. I do not listen to these panelists because I just think they’re bunch of horse shit. Mind my language, but honestly this whole campaign stuff is BS. I really wished that we were’nt in the situation we are in now and that McCain didn’t talk about “100 years in Iraq” that itself makes me not vote for him. But honestly, the best way to choose our next candidate is to go to their websites and take a look at the plans they’ve outlined and determine which plan you think works best for the issues that are important to you.

  3. Go to their websites and fact check the hell out of what they say, and then, look for what they’re not saying – like stuff that’s gone down the memory hole. It’s really a lot of work that most voters do not do.

    But yes, if you are a diehard supporter it is easy to see that you might say your person won, no matter what. If you are a diehard supporter, your mind will not be hanged, even by facts. That’s why elections are all about the so-called independents.

  4. […] Go to the author’s original blog: Why Really Smart People Disagree On Who Won The Debate […]

  5. Lisa V Gray says:

    Jonathan – fascinating post – thank you! I want to go back and read the Cialdini for ideas about how to put together client presentations or personal decisions such that the rewards of consistency don’t overwhelm the benefits of fresh thinking. These two are not diametrically opposed, to be sure — but that comfort-thing, that pleasant buzz of familiarity with your marketing may satisfy existing proponents, but it often blinds us to opportunities to attract new audiences, customers, clients, fans — voters.

  6. I appreciate a lot of what you have to say, but I think you’re mistaken when you say “we just can’t do it!” It depends how tightly you hold on to your past and your appearance before others. If your self worth isn’t dependent upon others, then you are free to change your mind and stance without fearing the repercussions of others’ opinions and their holding you to your past.

  7. Tim says:

    Tim, I agree with you on this one. As self-aggrandizing as it may sound, I honestly believe some people, myself included, are able to reason on a little bit of a higher level than most people. Obviously I’m right, because I use words like self-aggrandizing in my posts. That said, I definitely think the majority of people do fall victim to this “consistency principle” and I would be lying if I said I’ve never held onto my opinion solely for appearances sake. Still, I have more respect for people who are willing to change their minds when backed into a corner than those who stick to their guns so they can walk out of a room with their dignity intact (or so they think).

  8. Josh says:

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put my correct name in the right box, so I posted the above comment as Tim. I’ll get ’em next time, though.

  9. Josh says:

    Tim, I’m going to agree with you on this one. As self-aggrandizing as it may sound, I think there are people, myself included, who are able to reason on a little bit higher level than others. I must be right here, because I used the word self-aggrandizing. Still, most will fall prey to the consistency principle, as it seems much easier to stick to your guns and walk away with your dignity (or so you think) than to admit your wrong and change your opinion. I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to continue learning and let their thoughts and opinions evolve as they do so.

  10. Josh says:

    Don’t judge me for that mess above. I’ve had a tough week, all thinking on my higher level and all…

  11. Sharon says:

    Hi Jonathon,

    I wish, that using consistency….I could make the world believe that the Cubs actually won last night!! But then again, maybe it is consistent…..


  12. Jonathan Fields says:

    No doubt, while the consistency principle is a strong driver for both behavior and belief, different people will be led by it at different levels.

    I’m sure there’ll be some who can resist its pull, but Cialdini’s research is pretty strong that it’s a pervasive trait.

    Also, the thing is…it’s not about intelligence, it’s not voluntary and it’s not self-evident. So, very often it’s folks who claim to be immune to the impulse that are most susceptible.

    Food for thought… 🙂

  13. Will says:

    This is true, but I seem to remember other psychological studies showing that the presence of these biases are reduced when people have more information.

    The politicians simply don’t say anything significant, so people can stick with what they previously believed.

    I don’t think it’s as pessimistic as your article makes it seem. Don’t get me wrong though, you make a very important and valid point.

  14. Will says:

    Those who consider themselves more able to make good decisions despite what you previously believed are probably at least partially right (after all, the above bias is something we all have). I’d be willing to bet though that those people tend to make more of an effort to be informed on some of these issues. There’s not genetic difference of course.

  15. I would have to agree with you on this, but I must have been the odd man out last night. The person I wanted to win the debate did not perform well, IMHO. I was disappointed and then surprised when I started hearing the pundits and other friends saying they thought it was the other way around. I asked the question, “Did we just watch the same debate?”, but from an entirely different viewpoint.

  16. I do agree. I don’t think I’m immune. I do think however that time changes things.

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  18. I do agree that the more times I hear something, the more I tend to believe in it, or the validity of it.

    Is that not how positive reinforcement works?

    I saw the debates with two friends that had clear (and opposite) party affiliations and both seemed to believe that in presentation it was a draw. There were differences on who won once we got down to the specifics of issues (each believed their candidate won because they had already decided that the fundamental message of their candidate was the right one and therefore always correctly argued)

    As an independent I found the entire event, and each of their-and the pundits-opinions, spectacular in their collective assumptions on that note.


    Interesting thing for me to think on for a few days-

  19. Deb says:

    How could you not agree? I know I fall into this consistency mode, time and time again. We can try to be objective, but I truly believe that once we take a position, it’s really tough to do a 360. I think those who insist that they can be objective really don’t look deep inside to take a side and lean either way to begin with.

  20. It’s interesting to apply this concept to blogging or social networking. If you link to a blog and say good things about it, you are more likely to back it up when it pumps out mediocre stuff.

    I see a lot of this happening with those who meet at conferences and favour the mediocre content of their friends than the brilliant content of someone they have never met.

    Actually half way through the book, loved the section on Reciprocity and see that working all the time in social media marketing.

  21. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Will – great questions about the intersection of actual “bias” and the consistency principal. While related, they are not quite the same.

    Bias is more about leaning a particular way on an issue, a bias is something you develop over time based on many different experiences.

    Consistency is a bit different, though it can probably be considered a “subset” or contributon to bias. It is a deeply ingrained pyschological effect that makes an individual want to act and speak consistently with with acts, decisions and thoughts you’ve previously taken, especially if you’ve already made those public. It’s a more of a hidden filter to influences the perception of the facts that lead to a bias.

    @ Andrew – Interesting, part of the whole consistency principal is about who deeply committed you were to your position, too. And, as I mentioned, it influences everyone to a different degree.

    @ Katinka – no doubt, time can help us evolve from a position, especialy because the faurther away we get from an initial act or though, the less we tend to feel he need to stay consistent

    @ Shelley – Yup, you touched on another fundamental principal of belief, repetition breeds belief, regardless of whether the original event had any basis in fact

    @ Deb – It is tough to disagree, but it’s also a little tough to stomach for folks (like me) who consider themselves able to be fair and objective. So, I get arguing that the principal doesn’t apply to “me,” but simple arguing it doesn’t always make it so.

    @ Lindon – No doubt, the effect extends way beyond politics in blogging, social media, and pretty much every aspect of our lives. It’s actually a fundamental element of persuasion and can be tapped “for good or for evil.” 😉

    Influence has been one of the most influential books I’ve read in years, on the way I think, write and market.

  22. Martin says:

    Would it be right to say, people don’t like to be wrong? And will argue their point, even if it isn’t the best solution.

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