Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In the Eye of the Beholder: How we Determine the Meaning of the News

Paul Lazarsfeld, lead researcher of
The People's Choice Study.
Common sense holds that when we are presented with information that is contrary to what we believe, we are forced to reexamine not only the new evidence, but also our beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions. This is the belief that when a rational individual is confronted with evidence that runs contrary to their assumptions, that individual will rationally change what they believe.

Our news media landscape is more diverse than ever before. Digital, electronic, and print media each provide an assorted and democratic array of perspectives, including conservative, liberal, and centrist attitudes. We have at our fingertips what seems to be a limitless variety of ideologies to guide us towards making rational, informed, and deliberate conclusions about our world. However, one of the earliest studies in media psychology research suggests otherwise. It tells us that far from challenging our beliefs, contrary evidence reinforces the beliefs we already hold.

The 1940 American presidential election found the incumbent Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt running for an unprecedented third term. His tremendous popularity overshadowed the unknown Republican challenger Wendell Willkie. In the end, Roosevelt became the only president in U.S. history to serve three, consecutive terms.

What makes the 1940 U.S. presidential election interesting to us today is that it was the first election in which social scientists examined the influence of information on the voter's thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Five important concepts were produced from The People's Choice Study that are relevant to us.

1. We are influenced by people whom we admire
Through the 1940s it was commonly believed that information was injected directly from books, newspapers, film, radio, and television into the person, not unlike a hypodermic injection. The model, which is commonly called the hypodermic needle theory or the bullet theory held the view that people contemplate and interpret new information independently from others. The principal researcher of the study, Paul Lazarsfeld, found that we are influenced more by who is saying it, rather than what is being said. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues found that we are influenced more by opinion leaders than we are by information. In other words, our attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts are influenced by the interpretations of those we admire, rather than by our own thinking. This model, known as the two-step flow model, revolutionized how media theorists think about how media influences the audience.

2. We seek-out information that confirms our beliefs
Lazarsfeld and his colleagues found that far from providing us with a diversity of information, increasing the number and diversity of information "channels" did not increase the diversity of our political opinions. Rather than considering the assorted explanations and attitudes presented by various sources, audience members tended to selectively expose themselves only to programs that confirmed their attitudes. In other words, people with centrist beliefs tend to spend their time listening, reading, and watching centrist programs. The same is true for liberal and conservative attitudes.

3. We hear only what confirms our beliefs
We often find Liberals complaining of a "conservative media bias" and Conservatives complaining of a "liberal media bias".  How can this be? It turns out that the bias is more in the individual than in the message. The People's Choice Study reported that Conservatives or Liberals who were exposed to information that challenged their political attitude were reinforced in their preexisting attitudes. In other words, liberal news programming reinforced the Conservative's belief  and conservative news reinforced the Liberal's belief. When it comes to news programming, we selectively perceive what we are exposed to.

4. We remember what confirms our beliefs
It should come as no surprise that two friends, watching the same movie, will recount two different films. Not only do we selectively perceive what we are consuming, we also selectively remember what we have been exposed to. Selective retention was found to exist when Democrats could report instances of Roosevelt's trademark fireside chats, while Republicans could not. Of course at the basis of selective recall is selective perception; we cannot remember what we did not perceive.

5. Information reinforces rather than converts
Focusing on campaign media, the People's Choice Study concluded that campaign advertisements and public relations messages were not likely to change an individual's choice of candidate. Rather than convincing people to vote against their political party, political ads encouraged those within their party to get out and vote. In this we see how partisan news media serves not to convince others of their views, but rather to reinforce the views of their own party.

Although conducted over seventy years ago, The Peoples Choice Study and Paul Lazarsfeld's text, The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Election, both remain valuable resources for considering how we understand our relationship with media.