WSU study tracks emotional response in voters during final presidential debate

PULLMAN, Wash. — The 2020 Presidential Election is now just days away and both parties have supporters with strong feelings.  Now researches including those from Washington State University are measuring just how strong.

The method used for this study is called media physcophysiology. This approach uses human nervous system activity to draw  conclusions about emotional responses. During the final presidential debate, 45 people had sensors attached to their hands to detect sweat gland activity, which reveals the intensity of emotional response in real time.

The study was split evenly, with a third of people Joe Biden supporters, a third Donald Trump supporters and a third undecided.  Dr. Paul Bolls, a researcher with the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, said, for the most part, undecided voters didn’t have a large response until the end of the debate. He found that a bit surprising.

“The one potentially interesting exception to that is that undecided voters did respond slightly more strongly to Joe Biden’s closing statement than they responded to Donald Trumps closing statement,” said Dr. Bolls.

One of the strongest emotional responses from the Biden supporters came when President Trump delivered the remark where he said he was “the least racist person in this room.”

“So Biden Supporters responded very strongly to the segment of the debate where Donald Trump compared himself to Abraham Lincoln,” said Dr. Bolls.

Dr. Bolls said the Trump supporters in the study responded most strongly from attacks on both candidates.

“There is some previous peer reviewed scientific research on emotional differences between conservatives and liberals that indicate that conservatives, the brains of conservatives,” said Dr. Bolls.

Even participants in our debate reaction group seemed to notice the personal jabs.

“It was frustrating at times there was a stretch there where it felt like it was just personal attack after personal attack and that was frustrating,” said Jordan Magrath.

Dr. Bolls said the degree to which Donald Trump is able to reach his supporters is very similar to the research that looks at sports fandom.  So when you watch a moment like Malcom Butler intercepting Russell Wilson at the one yard line at the end of Super Bowl 49, it is a similar feeling to watching big moments during the debate.

Dr. Bolls said he would like to continue to further this research and conduct a similar study during the next State of The Union address.  We just have to see if it will be Donald Trump or Joe Biden giving those remarks.

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