This chapter considers three sets of studies on how social influence affects perceptions of candidates' performances in presidential debates. The first set shows that perceptions are influenced markedly by the reactions of peers watching the debate at the same time or by televised audiences shown on broadcast debates. The second set shows that expectations created by news accounts prior to debates also have significant impact and that different kinds of news accounts affect different viewers in distinct ways. Individuals with a high need for cognition respond well to more complicated messages that advance some reason as to why an apparently negative candidate characteristic may actually work in his or her favor. Those individuals do not respond well to simple assertions that a particular candidate will perform well. On the other hand, individuals with a low need for cognition show the opposite pattern. They respond to the simple but not the more complex messages. The third set of studies considers postdebate spin as well as predebate predictions. Although campaigns often use the strategy of lowering expectations before a debate by arguing that their candidate is disadvantaged and will not perform well, and then after the debate declare a surprising victory, our research suggests that this strategy is unlikely to work. It appears too manipulative. Generally, when campaign set expectations low, viewers perceive their candidate's performance as weak.
Copyright © 2008 by Joanne B. Ciulla, Donelson R. Forsyth, Michael A. Genovese, George R. Goethals, Lori Cox Han, and Crystal Hoyt. All rights reserved. This book chapter first appeared in Leadership at the Crossroads: Leadership and Psychology. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, CA.
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Kugler, Matthew B., and George R. Goethals. "The Unbearable Lightness of Debating: Performance Ambiguity and Social Influence." In Leadership at the Crossroads: Leadership and Psychology, edited by Joanne B. Ciulla, Donelson R. Forsyth, Michael A. Genovese, George R. Goethals, Lori Cox Han, and Crystal L. Hoyt, 149-64. Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.