Selective Exposure Theory
The Basic Idea
In the age of social media, it’s easy to create a personalized stream of content depending on which accounts or hashtags you follow. On Twitter, you can even block specific words from showing up on your feed. This can be beneficial for people who are sensitive to particular topics and insulate them from further harm. But it can also be detrimental: some users might abuse this feature by hiding anything that doesn’t align with their beliefs. For example, someone who supports consuming meat and animal products might go to the extreme of hiding words like “vegan” or “vegetarian.” There isn’t any benefit in hiding from these words, and it prevents them from coming across opinions that differ from their own.
In choosing to focus on information supporting their beliefs, our carnivore is exhibiting selective exposure. Here are three fundamental principles of selective exposure, using our carnivorous friend as an example:
- Avoidance of incongruent information: when the carnivore avoids information that is inconsistent with their beliefs.
- Selective perception: when the carnivore either does not perceive information they disagree with, or they try to re-interpret it to fit with their beliefs.
- Selective retention: when the carnivore forgets any information that portrays veganism in a positive light, but remembers information that portrays veganism in a negative light.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Cognitive Dissonance: Sometimes, beliefs and attitudes conflict with each other. When they do, that becomes uncomfortable; and as humans, we tend to avoid what’s uncomfortable. This act of avoiding a mental conflict is what’s referred to as “cognitive dissonance.”
Observer Expectancy Effect: This effect occurs when people act differently when they’re being observed than they would otherwise. This effect is especially salient in research contexts, where it can have severe implications for a study’s validity and replicability
Declinism: Our natural inclination to believe the past is better than the future. Someone experiencing declinism believes that life is getting worse over time.
The history of the selective exposure theory can be traced back to 1948 with Lazarsfield, Berelson, and Gaudet’s publishing of The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign.1 The investigators interviewed six hundred voters from Erie County, Ohio, during the United States’ 1940 presidential campaign between Wendell Willkie and Franklin D. Roosevelt.. An American Journal of Sociology review of the study noted two takeaways:
- Stressed voters who were interested in the election had more unpredictable voting patterns.
- Undecided voters were more susceptible to messaging from their registered party.2
It’s this second point that set the stage for Leon Festinger’s well-known work on cognitive dissonance theory. In his famous book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, published in 1957, he argued that people experience mental discomfort when holding conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or thoughts.3 When there is overwhelming evidence contrary to one’s beliefs, we are likely to change our views. Crucially, though where there’s a moderate amount of dissonance, , people eliminate this discomfort through selective exposure: they avoid contradictory information and seek out congenial information.3,4
Shortly after Festinger published his book, Columbia University researcher Joseph Klapper argued that people don’t just passively consume media. Instead, the media we consume actively influences our convictions.5 In his book The Effects of Mass Communication, he showed that people naturally gravitate toward that which supports their own opinions. He also purported that one’s family, friends, and society shape one’s views.5
By the mid-1960s, however, a literature review showed that only some studies supported selective exposure theory, and that “the research does indicate that individuals’ preferences must depend upon the particular circumstances.”6 Consequently, research into the topic waned until the 1980s, when John Cotton and Rex Heiser, among other groups of researchers, revisited these studies.7 Cotton and Heiser argued that methodological flaws were to blame for the mixed findings. The studies did not establish the presence of cognitive dissonance, nor did they take action to prevent the observer expectancy effect. As a result, participants felt they needed to seek out both contrary and supporting information.7
This methodological critique renewed into selective exposure theory. The theory is once again a popular research topic because of these papers which reasserted the presence of selective exposure theory. Currently, researchers use selective exposure theory to contextualize modern issues ranging from media choice in authoritarian Iran to how body ideals on social media influence adolescents’ body image. Wojcieszak et al., who conducted the aforementioned study in Iran in 2018, found for example that those who were more religious relied on regime media for news.8 Conversely, those who were less religious turned to independent outlets rather than regime media.8
Dr. Festinger is a social psychologist,best known for his theory of cognitive dissonance. His influential work helped change the focus of psychological research from behavioral psychology to social psychology, and he stressed the importance of lab experiments in ensuring reliable results.
Joseph Thomas Klapper
A preeminent scholar on the effects of media consumption on behavior, Dr. J. T. Klapper served as the director of social research at CBS for over two decades. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, he published some of the first papers on television programs’ influence on children and adults.
It’s understandable why we are prone to selective exposure. It helps us avoid cognitive dissonance, reducing the feelings of anxiety or panic that often come with it.
However, the consequences of selective exposure are rarely good. Avoiding information that conflicts with one’s own beliefs could lead to distrust in the media or an inability to hear the thoughts of those who disagree with you. It can also lead to polarization, which has been made clear by the COVID-19 pandemic. People who distrust medical experts and authorities selectively expose themselves to conspiracy theories that render them even more skeptical. People who do trust medical experts and authorities selectively expose themselves to information that renders them incapable of conversing with—and convincing—the vaccine-hesitant.
This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that modern social media allows us to curate where we get our information, and uses algorithms that feed us information with which we already agree.9 Examples include the anti-vaccination movement; the 2020 US election, where some in the losing political party questioned the legitimacy of the opposing votes; or even climate change, the most important issue of our time.
Beyond creating a more polarized world, selective exposure can exacerbate negative feelings of the world through declinism. Declinism is when someone views the past in an unrealistically optimistic light, and the present or future in an unrealistically bleak light. When declinism makes us think things are only going to get worse, we avoid information that would conflict with that idea. Selective exposure exacerbates that: we end up seeking information that makes it seem like things will get worse while making us avoid the only thing that would help—evidence to the contrary.
If these consequences seem pretty bleak, you’re not alone. But the first step towards addressing polarization is to learn about selective exposure theory, and you’ve already got that down! Learning how to make yourself reasonably uncomfortable and expose yourself to (reputable) information from the opposing viewpoint will help create an environment where we can talk to each other. For example, we can learn how to bring our friends out of declinism, or speak to our relatives about their stance on veganism and convince them to follow some vegan accounts. At the very least, coming across conflicting information will be educational, and it might further strengthen—or change— your beliefs.
As described in the history section, there has been a reemergence of studies that focus on selective exposure theory as insights on media consumption have become more desirable with the Internet and social media. Like the past, though, some research has continued to debate the existence of selective exposure theory. A few decades ago, investigators thought that the mixed results were due to experimental errors, but even with the improved methodology of today, findings are still not conclusive.
For example, a study from 2009 found that people generally didn’t prevent exposure from perspectives that conflicted with their own. Indeed, they argued that there is little evidence that Internet users will create echo chambers supportive of their beliefs even when they’re given a chance to do so.10 They even found that participants spent longer reading articles that didn’t support their opinions, suggesting that people may want to seek out information of this kind to be aware of diverse political perspectives.10
Another study from 2013 produced evidence that people pay more attention to information that is new, deviant, and inconsistent with their beliefs.11 These findings suggest that we evolved to monitor our surroundings and consider new threats rather than avoid them, contra selective exposure theory’s prediction.11
These are just two studies that question the presence and benefits of selective exposure, even though many articles(as mentioned throughout this article) support its existence. Further research needs to be done to understand why, where, and how it occurs.
Case Study #1
Psychological diagnoses using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) aren’t foolproof, even when the practitioner is experienced. As with anything else, getting a second opinion is always essential. One reason is that your first psychiatrist may be exhibiting signs of selective exposure.
This phenomenon has been well-documented by researchers. The findings can be summed up like this: firstly, selective exposure drives how some doctors and medical students search for information; and secondly, selective exposure leads to poorer diagnostic accuracy. One study found that “participants conducting a confirmatory information search were significantly less likely to make the correct diagnosis compared to participants searching in a balanced or disconfirmatory way.”12 More alarmingly, roughly one in eight doctors and one in four medical students displayed selective exposure when looking for new information for a diagnosis.12
While the researchers note that educators should create more training to reduce bias, these results stress the importance of patients getting a second opinion. As it turns out,us doctors are susceptible to the same behavioral tendencies as the rest of us.
Case Study #2
William Hart and his team investigated the behavior of Republicans and Democrats during the 2004 Presidential election. In particular, they compared how voters from different parties responded to information from a left-leaning channel (CNN) versus a right-leaning channel (Fox News).
Their investigation showed that Republicans were 1.5 times more likely to watch Fox News, while Democrats were 1.5 times more likely to watch CNN.13 The Republicans who only tuned in to Fox News were more polarized than Republicans who consumed media from various viewpoints.14 The same effect was present for Democrats who only watched CNN. This suggests that selective exposure can drive polarization not just between people from different parties. It can also drive polarization between people from the same party.
Related TDL Content
Why Does Gender Bias Exist?: Pointing to some of Festinger’s work on social comparison processes and confirmation biases, this article by Siddarth Ramalingam analyzes how our behavioral tendency to select the information we agree with leads to the persistence of gender bias. (Namely, people who already are biased select information that “confirms” their bias.) . It also discusses how our “fast” and “slow” mental processes (coined by Daniel Kahneman) affect our implicit and explicit biases.
How To Fight Fake News With Behavioral Science: Citing Festinger’s study, this article—also by Siddarth Ramalingam— goes into more depth on the role of “fake news” in our society. It also gives some suggestions on how to avoid fake news.
The Hidden Power of Intellectual Humility: There is a power in admitting to ourselves that there are things that we just don’t know. Selective exposure, however, makes this difficult, since we end up exposing ourselves to information that confirms what we think we know. In this informative essay, Kaylee Somerville looks at how several other psychological tendencies play a role in making us think we know more than we do.
- Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1948). The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. Columbia University Press.
- Gosnell, H. L. (1946). The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. Paul F. Lazarsfeld , B. Berelson , H. Gaudet. American Journal of Sociology, 51(6), 574–575. https://doi.org/10.1086/219893
- Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press.
- Stroud, N. (2014, May). Selective Exposure Theories. Oxford Handbooks Online. https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199793471.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199793471-e-009
- Klapper, J. (1960). The Effects of Mass Communication (2014/08/01 ed.). Free Press; Cambridge Core. https://www.cambridge.org/core/article/effects-of-mass-communication-by-joseph-t-klapper-glencoe-the-free-press-1960-pp-xviii-302-500/9F232F958E7ABCC269607B407EF1D742
- Freedman, J. L., & Sears, D. O. (1965). Selective Exposure. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 57–97). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60103-3
- Cotton, J. L., & Hieser, R. A. (1980). Selective exposure to information and cognitive dissonance. Journal of Research in Personality, 14(4), 518–527. https://doi.org/10.1016/0092-6566(80)90009-4
- Wojcieszak, M., Nisbet, E. C., Kremer, L., Behrouzian, G., & Glynn, C. (2019). What Drives Media Use in Authoritarian Regimes? Extending Selective Exposure Theory to Iran. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 24(1), 69–91. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161218808372
- Alfano, M., Carter, J. A., & Cheong, M. (2018). Technological Seduction and Self-Radicalization. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 4(3), 298–322. https://doi.org/10.1017/apa.2018.27
- Garrett, R. K. (2009). Echo chambers online?: Politically motivated selective exposure among Internet news users. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14(2), 265–285. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01440.x
- Jang, S. M. (2014). Seeking Congruency or Incongruency Online?: Examining Selective Exposure to Four Controversial Science Issues. Science Communication, 36(2), 143–167. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547013502733
- Mendel, R., Traut-Mattausch, E., Jonas, E., Leucht, S., Kane, J. M., Maino, K., Kissling, W., & Hamann, J. (2011). Confirmation bias: Why psychiatrists stick to wrong preliminary diagnoses. Psychological Medicine, 41(12), 2651–2659. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291711000808
- Hart, W., Albarracín, D., Eagly, A. H., Brechan, I., Lindberg, M. J., & Merrill, L. (2009). Feeling validated versus being correct: A meta-analysis of selective exposure to information. Psychological Bulletin, 135(4), 555–588. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0015701
- Perloff, R. (2013). Political Persuasion. In The SAGE Handbook of Persuasion: Developments in Theory and Practice (2nd ed.). SAGE. http://www.credoreference.com/book/sagepersu