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5 Reasons to Use Biometrics to Measure Voter Response

Measuring voter response during a debate is generally done using dial testing, to see second by second how a sample of voters is reacting. Biometrics takes the pressure off of the participant, using metrics such as heart rate to measure real-time reactions.

Editor’s Note: I’ve always been a fan of honest-to-God experiments, where researchers test two approaches against each other and produce real data, not just opinions. Here, Duane Varantests Biometric approaches against more traditional dial testing approaches and produces some pretty dramatic results. As the 2020 debate season has already begun, these findings are especially relevant and timely.


Presidential debates often feature second-by-second dial meters to highlight key moments during the debate. With dial testing, a sample of voters turns a dial on a response pad indicating their reaction to the debate on a second-by-second basis. Often this appears as a ‘worm’ superimposed over the telecast reflecting voter sentiment, with post-debate analysis of the dial response data. Typically, the dial testing is done with Undecided voters only, since supporters often ‘game’ their response.

The biometric analysis provides a more meaningful method for gauging voter response. With biometrics, voters are fitted with sensors on their fingers that reveal heart rate and galvanic skin response revealing their emotional reaction to debate content. Cameras focused on their faces also analyze their facial expressions to calculate both positive and negative sentiment.

Both dial testing and biometrics provide second-by-second data associated with a debate. But biometrics provides superior data for a number of reasons. Here are five reasons why biometrics are superior to dial testing:

1. Biometrics Better Detect Overall Trends

Compare dial data for the vice presidential debate in 2012 between Biden and Ryan with biometric data for the same debate.

The dial data provides a relatively ‘flat’ trend treating all time as equal in opportunity. But clearly, the audience is becoming progressively more and more bored with the debate over time, something that completely eludes the dial. Biometrics provides a far more accurate trend, better reflecting how voters actually experience the debate.

2. Biometrics Better Detect Key Moments

Because dials fail to detect the overall trend during a debate, it is difficult to gauge the impact of key moments relative to each other. Biometrics is far more powerful in comparing key moments, better highlighting the key moments that matter most. For example, in the Biden v. Ryan debate, there was a clear pivot. This turning point was when Biden turns to Ryan and says, ‘What, now you’re Jack Kennedy.’ While dial testing also detecting a strong response to that line, it was one of many, making it difficult to see how this was a turning point after which Democrats were far more energized.

3. Biometrics are More ‘Honest’

Even undecided voters come into a debate with preconceived biases that shape their dial responses. Biometrics provides a far more authentic measure of real (rather than stated) response. This is all the more important in an age where respondent reliability is becoming growingly questionable.

4. Biometrics Can Gauge Supporters as Well as Undecided Voters

Dial testing, by necessity, focuses on undecided voters because supporters typically ‘game’ the system: When their candidate speaks they automatically boost response when their opponent speaks they immediately crank the dial down. While gauging undecided voter response is important, so too is gauging supporter response since elections are often won or lost based on the level of enthusiasm demonstrated by supporters. Because biometrics can’t be easily gamed, accurate testing can be facilitated for both supporters and undecided voters.

5. Biometrics Detect Sentiment

Increasingly, researchers are coming to realize that voting decisions are made for emotional, rather than rational, reasons. Dial testing, however, largely gauges the rational dimensions of a debate. Biometrics, particularly facial expression analysis, is best suited to the analysis of response valence – that is, the positive and negative reactions experienced by voters. This includes analysis of humor (were the jokes really funny – among whom?).

With the new election season now upon us and many debates to come, biometrics can clearly better contribute to the post-debate analysis.

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Duane Varan, PhD

Duane Varan, PhD

Founder & CEO, MediaScience