The Science of Fox News: Why Its Viewers are the Most Misinformed
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Psychologists and political scientists have extensively studied selective exposure, and within the research literature, the findings are often described as mixed. But that’s not quite right. In truth, some early studies seeking to confirm Festinger’s speculation had problems with their designs and often failed—and as a result, explains University of Alabama psychologist William Hart, the field of selective exposure research “stagnated” for several decades. But it has since undergone a dramatic revival—driven, not surprisingly, by the modern explosion of media choices and growing political polarization in the U.S. And thanks to a new wave of better-designed and more rigorous studies, the concept has become well established.
“Selective exposure is the clearest way to look at how people create their own realities, based upon their views of the world,” says Hart. “Everybody knows this happens.”
Indeed, by 2009, Hart and a team of researchers were able to perform a meta-analysis—a statistically rigorous overview of published studies on selective exposure—that pooled together 67 relevant studies, encompassing almost 8,000 individuals. As a result, he found that people overall were nearly twice as likely to consume ideologically congenial information as to consume ideologically inconvenient information—and in certain circumstances, they were even more likely than that.
When are people most likely to seek out self-affirming information? Hart found that they’re most vulnerable to selective exposure if they have defensive goals—for instance, being highly committed to a preexisting view, and especially a view that is tied to a person’s core values. Another defensive motivation identified in Hart’s study was closed-mindedness, which makes a great deal of sense. It is probably part of the definition of being closed-minded, or dogmatic, that you prefer to consume information that agrees with what you already believe.
So who’s closed-minded? Multiple studies have shown that political conservatives—e.g., Fox viewers--tend to have a higher need for closure. Indeed, this includes a group called right-wing authoritarians, who are increasingly prevalent in the Republican Party. This suggests they should also be more likely to select themselves into belief-affirming information streams, like Fox News or right-wing talk radio or the Drudge Report. Indeed, a number of research results support this idea.
In a study of selective exposure during the 2000 election, for instance, Stanford University’s Shanto Iyengar and his colleagues mailed a multimedia informational CD about the two candidates—Bush and Gore—to 600 registered voters and then tracked its use by a sample of 220 of them. As a result, they found that Bush partisans chose to consume more information about Bush than about Gore—but Democrats and liberals didn’t show the same bias toward their own candidate.
Selective exposure has also been directly tested several times in authoritarians. In one case, researchers at Stony Brook University primed more and less authoritarian subjects with thoughts of their own mortality. Afterwards, the authoritarians showed a much stronger preference than non-authoritarians for reading an article that supported their existing view on the death penalty, rather than an article presenting the opposing view or a “balanced” take on the issue. As the authors concluded: “highly authoritarian individuals, when threatened, attempt to reduce anxiety by selectively exposing themselves to attitude-validating information, which leads to ‘stronger’ opinions that are more resistant to attitude change.”
The psychologist Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba has also documented an above average amount of selective exposure in right wing authoritarians. In one case, he gave students a fake self-esteem test, in which they randomly received either above average or below average scores. Then, everyone—the receivers of both low and high scores—was given the opportunity to say whether he or she would like to read a summary of why the test was valid. The result was striking: Students who scored low on authoritarianism wanted to learn about the validity of the test regardless of how they did on it. There was virtually no difference between high and low scorers. But among the authoritarian students, there was a big gap: 73 percent of those who got high self-esteem scores wanted to read about the test’s validity, while only 47 percent of those who got low self-esteem scores did.