January 30, 2012

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What Do Presidential Debates and Colonoscopies Have in Common?

At some point, each additional GOP Presidential debate becomes just a bigger pain in the . . . But science shows us that the last debate before a vote—and the last memorable event in the last debate—is paramount to how we remember the entire event.

In fact, memorable moments at the end, not consistent performance throughout, determine who wins and who loses.

In this awesome TED talk, Nobel winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains the weird difference between our experiencing selves and our remembering selves. And his research offers very important information for candidates and campaigns:


If you want to win, forget the experience; own the memory.

That’s why you can predict primary results from the last debate when the candidates are close and a lot of voters are only mildly committed. (There’s a lot of great information about how committed minds defend their decisions, but that’s for a later post.)

Whether writing a blog post, planning an event, giving a speech, or just engaging in a conversation, the audience’s memory will not be the sum of the experience, but the memory created. As Kahneman points out, memories of colonoscopies are better when the unpleasant experience lasts longer.

Newt Gingrich won South Carolina’s final debate and its primary. Then, Newt under performed in Florida’s final debate . . . and now he’s losing ground to Romney. Just like a protracted colonoscopy.

BONUS: Candidates and parties worry about the spin as much as they worry about the presentation for this exact reason. The media itself determines who wins a debate, too, by dominating memory. Most people don’t watch debates or major speeches. They get a summary from the news. And that summary is designed to influence their memories.

P.S. I will be talking about the brain science of winning elections on Saturday, February 25, at the 3rd Anniversary Tea Party. Don’t miss it.