Selective Exposure Theory

tunnel vision

The selective exposure theory is a concept in media and communication research that refers to individuals’ tendency to favor information that reinforces pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information. In this theory people tend to select specific aspects of exposed information based on their perspective, beliefs, attitudes and decisions.

People can determine the information exposed to them and select favorable evidence, while ignoring the unfavorable. This theory has been explored using the cognitive dissonance theory, which suggests information consumers strive for results of cognitive equilibrium (consistent rather than conflicting thoughts). In order to attain this equilibrium, individuals may either reinterpret the information they are exposed to or select information that are consonant with their view.

The premise of selective exposure relies on the assumption that information-seeking behavior continues even after an individual has taken a stance on an issue. Previous information-seeking behavior will be colored by various factors of the issue that is activated during the decision-making process. Thus, selective exposure operates by reinforcing beliefs rather than exposing individuals to a diverse array of viewpoints, which is considered an important aspect of a functioning democracy.

A number of studies has shown that selective exposure effects can occur in context of both individual and group decision making. Because decision makers are not able to evaluate information quality independent of their own position, decision-inconsistent information is systematically tested more critically than decision-consistent information. Therefore, decision-consistent information receives a subjectively perceived quality advantage and is thus preferred over inconsistent information.

Fischer and Greitemeyer (2010) explored individuals’ decision making in terms of selective exposure to confirmatory information. Selective exposure posed that people make their decisions based on information that is consistent with their decision rather than information that is inconsistent with their decision. Researchers explain that people have the tendency to seek and select information using their integrative model. There are two primary motivation for selective exposure: accuracy motivation and defense motivation. Accuracy motivation explains that one is motivated to be accurate in their decision making and defense motivation explains that one seeks confirmatory information to confirm their beliefs and justify their decisions. Accuracy motivation is not always beneficial during selective exposure and can instead be counterintuitive, increasing the amount of selective exposure. Defense motivation can lead to reduced levels of selective exposure.

Selective exposure avoids information inconsistent with one’s beliefs and attitudes. How decisions are made and how relevant information is gathered, are not the only two factors taken into account when making a final decision. Fischer et al. (2010) found it important to consider the information source itself, otherwise explained as the physical being that provided the source of information. Selective exposure research generally neglects the influence of indirect decision-related attributes, such as physical appearance. In Fischer et al. (2010) two studies hypothesized that physically attractive information sources resulted in decision makers to be more selective in searching and reviewing decision-relevant information. Researchers explored the impact of social information and its’ level of physical attractiveness. The data was then analyzed and found that selective exposure existed for those who needed to make a decision. Therefore, the more attractive an information source was, the more positive and detailed one was with making their decision because factors like one’s attractiveness was considered.

In another study, selective exposure is defined by the amount of confidence an individual has. People, whether they have a low self-esteem or high self-esteem, are still able to control the amount of selective exposure. Individuals who maintain higher confidence levels reduce the amount of selective exposure. Albarracín and Mitchell (2004) hypothesized that those who displayed higher confidence levels were more willing to seek out information both consistent and inconsistent with their views. The phrase ‘decision-consistent information’ explains the tendency to actively seek decision-relevant information. Selective exposure occurs when individuals search for information and show systematic preferences towards ideas that are consistent, rather than inconsistent, to their beliefs. On the contrary, those who exhibited low levels of confidence were more inclined to examine information that did not agree with their views.

Bozo et al. (2009) investigated the anxiety of fearing death and compared it to age in relation to health-promoting behaviors. Researchers analyzed data using the terror management theory. Results found that age had no direct effect to specific behaviors. They found anxiety of death yielding health-promoting behaviors in young adults. When people are reminded of their own death, it causes stress and anxiety, but eventually leads to positive changes in their health behaviors. However, young adults were less motivated to change and practice health-promoting behaviors because they used the selective exposure to confirm their prior beliefs. Selective exposure creates barriers between the behaviors in different ages, but there is no specific age in which people change their behaviors.

Much empirical data on selective exposure has been based on the cognitive dissonance theory, which suggests that when people make decisions they then perceive an apathetic motivational state because they must accept the disadvantages of their choice. Theories related to cognitive dissonance suggest that individuals strive for cognitive equilibrium and consistency. When they encounter information that is discordant with their pre-existing views, they experience an unfavorable psychological state of dissonance.

In Festinger’s theory, the motivation to alleviate dissonance by seeking out information that is concordant with one’s existing beliefs is the motive for selective exposure. However, subsequent research on selective exposure within dissonance theory produced weak empirical support, until dissonance theory was revised and methods conducive to measuring selective exposure were improved. To date, scholars argue that empirical results supporting the selective exposure hypothesis are still mixed, possibly due to the issues used in experimental studies or the failure to simulate an authentic media environment in experiments.

Groups and group norms work as mediators. For example, one can be strongly disinclined to change to the Democratic Party if their family has voted Republican for a long time. In this case, the person’s predisposition to the political party is already set, so they don’t perceive information about Democratic Party or change voting behavior because of mass communication. If someone is already exposed by close friends, which creates predisposition toward something, it will lead to an increase in exposure to mass communication and eventually reinforce the existing opinion. An opinion leader is also a crucial factor to form one’s predisposition and can lead someone to be exposed by mass communication. The nature of commercial mass media also leads people to select certain types of media contents.

In early research, selective exposure originally provided an explanation for limited media effects. The ‘limited effects’ model of communication emerged in the 1940s with a shift in the media effects paradigm. This shift suggested that while the media has effects, for example on voting behavior, these effects are limited and influenced indirectly by interpersonal discussions and the influence of opinion leaders. Selective exposure was considered one necessary function in early studies of media’s limited power over citizens’ attitudes and behaviors. Political ads deal with selective exposure because people are more likely to favor a politician that agrees with their own beliefs. Voters tend to read more about their preferred political candidate than an opponent.

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