Wired to Connect: how the Gipper did it

What’s your first response to this? Assuming this researcher has a good handle on how Reagan turned the tide back in 1984,  does it bode well for democracy? Or did millions of viewers make a choice based on what really matters in human life, by using their deeply mysterious, almost magical neurological ability to “connect”?

from Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew Lieberman

“On October 21, 1984, President Ronald Reagan and his challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, held the second of two na­tionally televised presidential debates in the run-up to the presiden­tial election. President Reagan remained popular, but his support was softening in light of growing concerns about his age. His poor performance in the previous debate, three weeks earlier, had opened the door to questions about his mental fitness. If reelected, Reagan would become the oldest sitting president in U.S. history (he was seventy-three at the time of the debate). Reagan’s performance at this final debate is frequently cited as a turning point in the election, when Reagan’s popular support solidified, contributing to the largest electoral landslide in history.

“How did Reagan demonstrate that he was still in command of all of his faculties? Did he display his erudition on the current issues of the day? Did he play to his own strengths by vigorously attacking Mondale on issues like foreign policy or the tax code? No. It was Reagan’s comedic timing that allowed him to carry the day. Reagan delivered a series of prefabricated one-liners with aplomb, regained his momentum, and never looked back. The most notable zinger came when the moderator asked him if age was a concern in the election. Reagan famously replied, ‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ Mondale, not exactly a spring chicken at fifty-six, later commented that he knew at that very mo­ment he had lost the campaign.

“That night, nearly 70 million Americans watched the debate and came away convinced that the Gipper still had his mojo. Any fears people had that President Reagan had slipped were assuaged. But how we as a nation reached this conclusion on that night is surprising. Reagan himself didn’t change our minds about him. It took a few hundred people in the audience to change our minds. It was their laughter coming over the airwaves that moved the needle on how we viewed Reagan.

“Social psychologist Steve Fein asked people who had not seen the debate to watch a recording of it in one of two ways. Some individuals saw clips of the debate and the audience’s reaction as it was played on live television, while others saw the debate without being able to hear the audience’s reactions. In both cases, viewers heard the president deliver the same lines. Viewers who heard the audience laughter rated Reagan as having outperformed Mondale. However, those who did not hear the laughing responded quite dif­ferently; these viewers indicated a decisive victory for Vice President Mondale. In other words, we didn’t think Reagan was funny be­cause Reagan was funny. We thought Reagan was funny because a small group of strangers in the audience thought Reagan was funny. We were influenced by innocuous social cues.

“Imagine watching the debate yourself (or maybe you did watch it). Would you think audience laughter could influence your evalu­ation of the candidates? Would you be influenced by those graphs that CNN shows at the bottom of the screen during today’s de­bates to indicate how a handful of people are responding to the candidates, moment by moment? Would it sway your vote? Most of us, I suspect, would say no. The notion that our decision about who should be the president of our nation could be altered by the responses of a few people in the audience violates our theory of human nature, our sense of ‘who we are.’ We like to think of our­selves as independent-minded and immune to this sort of influence. Yet we would be wrong. Every day others influence us in countless ways that we do not recognize or appreciate.”



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