Selective exposure. It is a term that may be relatively unknown to the layman but is clearly visible if one is aware of what it is and what it looks like. Especially when it comes to politics.
Natalie Jomini Stroud, a leading source on the topic of selective exposure, says in a study she wrote titled The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication, “Selective exposure is the motivated selection of messages matching one’s beliefs” (Stroud, 531). Basically, the idea here is that, given the many options of today’s news climate, people will choose to ignore the news that contradicts their fundamental beliefs and instead will consume the news that conforms to their preexisting notions. I encourage you to check out Stroud’s article titled “Polarization and Partisan Selective Exposure” to learn more about selective exposure here.
Everybody knows that news outlets such as Fox and CNN are biased. So why do people tune in? There is plenty of research on the issue at hand. Leon Festinger, recognized as the father of modern social psychology, wrote a book in 1957 titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance that has received much scholarly acclaim and is a widely accepted reason for selective exposure. Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory can be explained using the analogy of a smoking habit. Somebody who smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, knowing full well that smoking causes cancer, is living in dissonance.Their behaviors do not align with their cognition. The theory of cognitive dissonance would suggest that one does not enjoy the state of dissonance and thus will try to remove the dissonance and experience peace. For the smoker, they would have to quit their smoking habit to come to a point of consonance. You can read more about cognitive dissonance here. When it comes to politics, the theory of cognitive dissonance would provide a reason why we engage in selective exposure. Because we don’t like the feeling of dissonance, which can be created by receiving opposing political opinions, an easy solution is to simply ignore news that contradicts your opinions. Thus you are left with partisan selective exposure.
So if cognitive dissonance is why we engage in selective exposure, what are some results of selective exposure? Well, when it comes to politics, some outcomes include polarization of the political climate, increased selective exposure, and less tolerance for those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. These are all negative outcomes of selective exposure, but what if selective exposure is a good thing? What if selective exposure has its place in democracy? What if partisanship isn’t as bad as it first seems?
The New York Times produced an article on March 1, 2018 titled “What Motivates Voters More Than Loyalty? Loathing”which discusses the topic of “negative partisanship”. Negative partisanship is the concept that voters align themselves against the opposing party rather than with their own party. The 2016 presidential election provides pretty good evidence in support of the prevalence of this notion.
Now, this article still seems to shine a negative light on partisanship, and you can surely understand why! Nobody wants to identify with anger and hatred toward a political candidate, or anyone for that matter! These are emotions that people largely want to deny. Yet, as this article implies, these emotions are the very thing which motivates voters to get to the polls on election day!
So I submit this thought: if selective exposure, which is compelled by cognitive dissonance and leads to negative partisanship, encourages citizens to vote, then how bad can it really be? In a democracy, voting is arguably the easiest way to participate in politics, and it is vitally important to the success of a democracy. Check out this chart recording the voter turnout rates since 1916. Is the increase in voter turnout in recent years due in part to negative partisanship?