Everyone is asking, “Who won last night’s debate?”
We like to think that we, as humans, are far more advanced computational beings than computers, but we sure act like a bunch of computers. Considering the effective bit depth and resolution of our squishy neural networks, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about ones and zeros. Win or lose. Red or blue. Right or wrong. Them or us. This or that.
Who won? Depends who’s answering. A Democrat friend of mine winced at Romney’s weasley smirks during the debate last night. My Republican uncle was at home watching the debate, making converse assessments of Obama’s disingenuous smirk.
One of my favorite Wikipedia pages is the List of biases in judgement and decision making. It is in our nature to decide first and explain later. One of the interesting aspects of Reconstitution is the disruption of the critical moment of perception, decision, and subsequent storymaking inherent in TV watching. We’re not so interested in answering the question Who won? but rather confronting viewers with the question What makes you so sure your winner is the winner?
The list of biases includes the bias blind spot, which is the cognitive bias of failing to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases. We, the debate-watchers, see ourselves as objective data-gathering political scientists. But really, we are more like mad scientists, so obsessed with proving our thesis that we inadvertently throw out unwanted experimental results. We are such gifted storytellers that we’ve mistaken our fictions for truth.
Forget about Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. We are our own worst pundits. There is a talking head inside each of us—a reactionary, opinionated, blowhard that colors every word of political discourse we watch on television. Reconstitution aims to challenge this inner pundit before it can wrangle and twist the words actually being spoken by the candidates. It identifies patterns too long for our short-sighted meat computers to detect. It might be wishful thinking, but perhaps an awareness of these patterns — in the heat of our media consumption — can inhibit the quick-drying cement of our knee jerk reactions. Of course, there’s no replacement for a gut feeling, but knowing what we know about gut feelings, it’s healthy to question your own from time to time.
The power of the Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) database and other natural language processing tools is that they parse language in a way that we, as mere humans, cannot. LIWC, for example, listens for the little “junk words” that we toss aside when listening to a speech. It turns out that these junk words can tell you a lot about the psychological state of the speaker. Sure, your senses and intuition can also tell you a lot, but as we’ve learned, they’re more stacked and automatic than we’d like to admit.
So who won last night’s debate? Obama? Romney? We the Peoples? Yes.
Creative Commons images courtesy of Austin Hufford and Scout Tufankjian