Debate checkers usually focus on evaluating the facts of what each candidate said. While it is important to get the facts straight, this is not nearly enough to evaluate the actual impact of the debate on the audience. It often matters much more how candidates say things rather than what they say.
This comes largely from thinking errors in our brains, what scholars such as Dan and Chip Heath in their 2013 book, “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work” call cognitive biases. We tend to perceive ourselves as forming opinions based on logic and facts. In reality, emotions play a much larger role in influencing beliefs than we realize. Most of the time, people make intuitive judgments based on their so-called autopilot system, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains, according to Daniel Kahneman in his 2010 Thinking, Fast and Slow. The autopilot system makes good decisions most of the time, but it also makes systematic thinking errors that are widely exploited by politicians and others skilled in the psychology of persuasion.
Fortunately, we can use the deliberate, and reflective, intentional system to catch and override the thinking errors committed by the autopilot system. However, the intentional system takes effort to turn on through focusing and paying careful attention to the environment around us. Unless people do so, they are highly likely to be influenced by appeals to cognitive biases.
Both presidential candidates have made such appeals. For example, Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump Vladimir Putin’s “puppet.” This invoked a bias likely to cloud the minds of the audience, called the halo effect. This thinking error emerges when we perceive an association between something that arouses strong feelings to something else, and transfer our emotional reaction from the first to the second. Clinton knows that many Americans do not like Putin, and the image of being someone’s puppet is quite undesirable. Combining Trump with Putin and puppet is bound to create a negative emotional association, regardless of the truth.
Trump, in turn, used repetition to drive home his claims, invoking the illusory truth effect. This flawed thinking pattern causes our brains to perceive something as true just because we hear it repeated a number of times, despite the evidence on the matter. Advertising often uses the illusory truth effect to get us to buy more goods. In the most recent debate, Trump’s relentless repetition of the claim that NAFTA is the “worst deal ever signed” and cost Americans “millions of jobs” functions the same way. Despite the fact that experts disagree on the impact of NAFTA on the U.S. job market, Trump has successfully persuaded many millions that NAFTA is terrible.
Clinton called on the illusion of control, an error that occurs when we perceive people as having more control over a situation than they actually do. For instance, Clinton attributed the decline in the U.S. national debt in the 1990s primarily to her husband’s policies. This very much exaggerates the actual impact that any president can have on the national debt during the president’s own tenure in office. This impact can only be measured later, after the policies passed by a president had time to make an impact.
In the debate, Trump repeated a number of times that America is much worse than it used to be. He spoke to the thinking error of viewing the past through rose-colored glasses, a bias known as declinism. In reality, the world has grown better on a variety of measurements, with people experiencing greater health, longevity and economic well-being, and less violence, as demonstrated by Steven Pinker in his 2012 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.”
As candidates use our cognitive biases to influence our perceptions and prompt us to believe falsehoods, it is vital for us to not just fact-check their statements, but to also fallacy-check our thinking about those statements to guard the safety and health of our democracy.
Gleb Tsipursky is an Ohio State University professor researching decision-making and emotional intelligence and is the president of the nonprofit Intentional Insights. He wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.