Real-time LA Debate Study

Posted by on Nov 21, 2014 in Cover Stories | 0 comments

The Louisiana Senate debates on Oct. 14 and Oct. 29 presented a prime research opportunity to analyze participants’ emotional responses to political stimuli for Kathleen Searles and Martin Johnson, two of the LSU Manship School’s newest faculty members.

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Students watching the debate

Searles, who holds a joint appointment as an assistant professor in Mass Communication and Political Science, and Johnson, the Kevin P. Reilly, Sr. Chair in Political Communication and Professor of Mass Communication and Political Science, merged their interest in politics and media to critically compare instruments used in real-time response measurement (RTR) and physiological measurement. RTR measurement is an approach that provides an intuitive glimpse of an audience’s response to specific moments in a message or stimulus, such as an advertisement or a debate, using a device like a handheld dial.

Searles and Johnson used sophisticated equipment from the LSU Media Effects Lab (MEL) to compare participants’ emotional responses to the debates captured by two different instruments: a handheld response dial device, or a perception analyzer, which relies on RTR, and external psychophysiological hardware to measure sympathetic emotional reactions via skin conductance.


Observing real-time physiological data.

On each occasion, about 60 LSU student participants watched candidates Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and former Republican candidate Rob Maness in the highly publicized debates. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: RTR dials or skin conductance measures.

“Depending on the sort of differences we find between the [skin conductance] and dial conditions, our results may have serious implications for researchers as well as CNN’s use of dials,” Searles said. “Moreover, if the pattern of emotional response differs significantly between the two conditions, our results will have implications for scholarly measurement of political emotion.”


Reading the real-time data from the perception analyzers

Searles said the MEL has been central to the success of their project. The MEL provided access to the appropriate devices and a space to conduct trial runs in the weeks prior to the debate. The MEL’s staff members trained Searles and Johnson on the sophisticated instruments and helped them set up and troubleshoot technological issues at the Oct. 14 debate. Participants were secured through the MEL Subject Pool, which comprises LSU undergraduate students who volunteer to participate in various research studies.

“We are confident that this research will contribute to communication and political research broadly, but none of this would have been possible without the MEL,” Searles said.

While data analysis of Searles and Johnson’s experiment is currently underway, they expect participants who use dials to engage in more effortful processing depending on their partisan identification. Searles and Johnson hypothesize these participants are likely to have different patterns of emotional response than participants in the skin conductance condition.

For more information on this research, contact Dr. Kathleen Searles,, or Dr. Martin Johnson,

For more information on the Media Effects Lab, contact Dr. Meghan S. Sanders,