Psychological Tricks Win Debates how Candidates Employ Effective Tactics

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Candidates running for office use a great number of psychological devices to try to persuade the public their policies will mean real solutions. The 2012 presidential debates have been so entertaining and full of highs and lows, that perhaps people begin to forget what is at stake.  Obama looked very laid back in the first one, so much so that some media had hissy fits.  Then, he surged back to his assertive and presidential self for the second debate.  And no one will soon forget Romney’s domineering behavior in the first one, his firing of Big Bird, or his “Binders full of women”, in the second debate.

Most candidates use all of the following: politeness, using key attachment words, distraction, grooming, facial expressions, gestures, posture and gait.  They also employ language that confirms the bias they already are well aware most listeners will have. Their words also strive to create “sound bites.” These may be humorous, pithy, and empathetic, or even go quite wrong, as many believe the “binders” comment did. They present using something called the contrast principle and they also use empathy, whether real or imagined, to score points.

Most of these tricks are self explanatory, such as appearance, articulate speech, and politeness. Everyone over age ten should recognize that people are more receptive to any message if it comes with politeness and intent. But that doesn't always guarantee likability; think Eddie Haskell or Eric Cartman. Even Obama’s nearly sleepy demeanor was politeness that backfired.  Trying not to look like an angry black man by remaining as calm as possible, Obama led many to think after the first debate, that he just didn't care enough to assert himself.

Other tricks of a debater are not as well known, but always conform to simple rules of psychology.  Human beings forget how very conditioned they are.  Both societally, and genetically, humans will always reliably respond to a few key attachment words. Some of these words are: Please, Thank You, Of course, and Because.  All of these words trigger a programmed response. Studies have proven for example that even an unreasonable request is honored when delivered with all these words.

Think of the following sentence:  “Show us the blasted birth certificate you socialist, Muslim, Kenyan” Contrast it with the same message delivered politely. “Of course, if Obama would just please show his birth certificate it would help, because people have a right to know, and hopefully he certainly has nothing to hide.” Also think of the urgency, or imploring sound and tone delivered with the words.

More words that are attached to psychological principles include using language that contrasts two things and subtly implies one is better.  You can buy this shirt for just $19.99, or you could buy this $60.00 shirt on SALE for just $19.20.  The suggestion that the first shirt is not worth as much makes people consistently choose the second.  The word “because” is effective and attached to logic.  Using the word “Because” nearly always wins against someone not using it. For example contrast the words: “I was for it before, because I was told contraception saves lives” to the lines: “I’m against contraception. It’s always wrong.”  Offering a reason, no matter how right or wrong, programs people to agree.

Another effective tactic employed by all sides is to project complete certainty no matter what.  Many people hear some of the nonsense burbled out from people like Donald Trump, Stephen Colbert, or Glen Beck,and so on-(there’s too many to name!) and can’t wrap their minds around it.  They forget that what others are hearing is NOT the insane and spewing babble, but the authority, tone, confidence and certainty with which it is spouts out like a burst sewer pipe.

Yet another tactic is to distract by using your opponent’s own arguments against him or her. Romney brought up the bail out of the U.S car industry saying that though he (Romney)said they should be allowed to go bankrupt, Obama actually did bankrupt them. This is partly true in an inside out way, since the jobs and industry are rebounding. Yet, it twists the minds of the listeners with the effect of them wringing out their brains through the ears and giving up trying to figure out who is right.  A similar trick is to invent phrases out of the opposing side’s playbook.  “Trickle down government “implies that big government is an overreaching and bumbling nincompoop and not “We the people.” The democrats are far worse at this. They fail miserably to come up with these kinds of very effective and voracious “sound bites.”  The Right wing  invented “trickle down,” but noting that if it had worked the peons at the bottom (47%) would all have jobs and wealth now, they turned it around as if the peons are peed on by some entity other then the 1% wealthiest. The term “job creators” is even more famously backward and VERY effective.

Finally, an extremely effective effort to be funny usually works in the candidates favor. Although many would argue it just makes Romney look even more robotic, they at least agree he wants to be engaging, and that matters.  When he brings up topics like firing Big Bird or bringing in binders full of women, he is trying to engage and persuade. At the same time, he is using distraction to a great degree to side step the actual question about women’s health and economic issues.  Romney also tried with humor to deflect questions about how wars, deficit, tax cuts and debt will actually be paid for.  Similarly, on the Obama side, his efforts were to spin away from his failed attempts and keep the electorate looking instead at his achievements.  He used humor too, for instance in saying: “I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours. It doesn't take as long.” 

Psychological tricks may seem devious, but all humans use them, all of the time.  It is just that in a political climate, the words and appearances are amplified to Mt. Rushmore size, and beyond.  What some see as monumental, others see as a blasphemy.

More about this author: Christyl Rivers

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