Trump vs. Biden: Psychology Explains Who Actually Won the Debate

Image for post
Image for post

On September 29th, we witnessed the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Personally, I had no plan to watch this debate, and I was actually going to watch American Horror Story: Coven with my lovely girlfriend, Tristin, but she had to go out. So, like millions of others around the world, I endured the debate, and it was more of a mess than any of us expected.

Trump’s lack of maturity and emotional regulation caused him to interrupt Biden at every turn, and Chris Wallace was forced to stop the president on numerous occasions. In my opinion, Biden’s one goal should have been to keep his cool to really highlight Trump’s lack of candor, but Biden failed miserably at this.

But, the focus of this video isn’t to share my opinions about how each candidate did or to fact check each of their statements. I’m more fascinated with how each side perceived the debate and who won. Although I’m liberal, I find it a good practice to follow right-wing media to not only see how their side thinks, but even though I disagree with their ideology, they’re more likely to call out factors my biases may miss on the left. So, since the debate, I’ve seen both the right and the left share their opinions on who won and who lost the debate, and it’s been fascinating.

The left has been focusing on Trump’s avalanche of lies throughout the evening and his constant interruptions. But what stood out the most to many of us was the fact that Trump was given the opportunity to denounce white supremacists, and he came so close, but he then refused to do so.

Meanwhile, those from the right are arguing that Trump clearly won this debate, and they’ve created the narrative that Trump was outnumbered as he had to defend himself against Joe Biden as well as the Fox News moderator, Chris Wallace. Since the debate finished, Trump has sent out a barrage of tweets with clips of conservative pundits and his supporters to further create the image that he won the debate.

While watching the debate, I tried to be as objective as possible, and that’s why I found the coverage so interesting. Although there were many lies from Trump, I saw certain people hyper-focus on strange flaws from Trump’s debate. Meanwhile, I saw this clip that Trump shared where Leo Terrell claims Biden didn’t say anything about helping the black community:

Not only was Leo Terrell wrong, but I’ve seen many people on the left who missed things as well. So, I thought this was the perfect time to discuss a psychological flaw that many of us suffer from without even knowing it, and it comes from one of the most famous studies in the field.

They Saw a Game: A Case Study

I absolutely love reading books on the flaws in our thinking and how to improve it. Some of the most recent books I’ve read on the subject include The Art of Thinking Clearly, Black Box Thinking, and Kluge. I read books like this because I truly believe that the closest any of us can get so self-awareness is to realize that our brains and how we think can be extremely fallible. A study that’s often referenced in some of these books as well as many other books is the famous study on perception from Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril. By analyzing this study, we may be able to have a better idea of who won the presidential debate of Donald Trump vs Joe Biden.

The authors of the study had the idea after the 1951 football game between the rivaling teams of Dartmouth and Princeton. In this game, there was quite a bit of controversy as well as a disagreement between the two schools as to what actually happened during the game.

Much like the left and the right after the debate, Hastorf and Cantril found it interesting that it appeared as though people witnessed completely different events. So, they designed a study, which is described in the abstract of their famous paper They Saw a Game: A Case Study:

Whether the students were physically at the game or watched a video of it, you’d hope their memory of the events were accurate, but that’s far from what happened.

Here are some of the results from the study:

From what you saw in the game or the movies, or from what you have read, which team do you feel started the rough play?

Dartmouth Students:

Dartmouth started it 36% Princeton started it 2% Both started it 53%

Princeton Students:

Dartmouth started it 86% Princeton started it 0% Both started it 11%

From your observations of what went on at the game, do you believe the game was clean and fairly played, or that it was unnecessarily rough and dirty?

Dartmouth Students:

Clean and fair 6% Rough and dirty 24% Rough and fair 25%

Princeton Students:

Clean and fair 0% Rough and dirty 69% Rough and fair 2%

In total, there were 8 questions asked, and as you can see from the examples, the students saw completely different events. When interpreting the data, the authors stated:

As they said, this is more than just a study about a football game, this study illustrates something about the nature of any social event. This study spawned many other social psychology studies, which then lead to what’s known as selective perception.

So, who won the debate? Well, it depends who you ask. Trump supporters will say Trump won and Biden supporters will say he won. The reality is that we all fall victim to selective perception and we see what we want to see. Although the 2020 elections have major implications for the future of our country as well as the world, we should all take a moment to think about how selective perception manifests in other aspects of our lives.

Are we staying in a toxic relationship because we’re not seeing the truth of the situation? Are we stuck at an awful job because our perception is off? And what about the thoughts that go through our head that fuel our depression or anxiety? Critical thinking not only helps me analyze what’s going on in the world, but it helps me take a look at my own thoughts and life to try and get closer to the truth.

Often times, our perceptions aren’t reality. Our brains are flawed and subject to a slew of biases that many of us neglect to acknowledge. By becoming more aware of the inner workings of our minds, we can become better critical thinkers, improve our emotional intelligence, and get a little closer to living a better life.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram@TheRewiredSoul. For more mental health blogs, check out

If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.

Written by

Psychology/mental health/philosophy. Stay up to date by following me here & on Twitter/Instagram @TheRewiredSoul. Books available at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store