The study of selective exposure seeks to understand how and why people consume particular communication content when faced with a constellation of choices. Broadly defined, selective exposure refers to behaviors that are deliberately performed in an effort to bring communication content within reach of one’s sensory apparatus (Zillmann & Bryant 1985). In the modern, media-saturated world, selective exposure often occurs within the context of mass media, although by definition it encompasses all forms of human communication. The current state of research in this area can be understood by tracing historical approaches to selective exposure, outlining key theoretical components, and describing directions of current research.
Psychology’s interest in persuasion laid the groundwork for the study of selective exposure. By the conclusion of World War II, propaganda researchers had long noted that people avoided messages that conflicted with their opinions, and even interpreted those messages differently. Lazarsfeld et al.’s (1944) classic study of the 1940 presidential election provided strong support for the idea that people either avoided persuasive media content designed to change their opinions, or sought out media that reinforced their beliefs. They found that approximately two-thirds of decided voters saw and heard more of their own party’s publicity than the opposition’s, and that the campaigns influenced very few voters to change their voting intentions, especially among those harboring strong party affiliations.
The notion that media functions to reinforce existing beliefs and conditions is a theme repeatedly voiced in Klapper’s (1960) survey of mass media research. In his book, he argued that the process of selective exposure was one of the primary mediators of media effects. Klapper grounded his definition of selective exposure in Festinger’s (1957) influential cognitive dissonance theory. Festinger’s theory asserts that mental discomfort is produced in individuals holding conflicting attitudes, thoughts, or beliefs, and when individuals become aware of this contradiction they may seek to avoid information that produces this discomfort, or seek messages sympathetic to their beliefs.
In the years following the publication of Klapper’s (1960) book, many media researchers focused their efforts on understanding the uses audiences have for media. Not surprisingly, research has consistently shown that that entertainment and interest are major motivating factors of media use. The realization that entertainment is a key variable spawned interest in the emotional factors leading to media use. Subsequently, a large body of literature has accumulated that confirms that emotion and mood play an integral role in media choices.
Emotion And Selective Exposure
Much of the research on emotion and selective exposure is based on the affect dependent theory of stimulus arrangement (Zillmann & Bryant 1985). This theory is founded on the premise that people are motivated to avoid negative, noxious, or unpleasant stimuli on the one hand, and try to maximize exposure to positive, pleasurable stimuli on the other. The theory recognizes that individuals often use media as a means to achieve this goal. Furthermore, the theory recognizes that individuals may or may not be aware of the motivating role of their own moods. Rather, through a process of classical and operant conditioning, individuals learn which types of stimuli are best suited to alleviate or maintain particular moods.
Particularly strong evidence in support of the theory has been found in studies that have investigated correlations between mood shifts associated with pregnancy and menstrual cycles and preferences for certain media content. For instance, women are more likely to view comedies when their menstrual cycle makes them most likely to be depressed (Helgrel & Weaver 1989; Meadowcroft & Zillmann 1987), and they are more likely to choose programs with higher sexual and romantic content when their cycle makes them more likely to have an increased libido (Weaver & Baird 1995).
Experimental and survey research has shown that media may be used to alleviate such negative mood states as boredom, stress, apprehension, annoyance, and depression. Relatively few studies, however, have examined the effect of positive emotions on selectivity. This leaves the basic assumption that individuals are motivated to maximize exposure to pleasurable stimuli open to debate. Nevertheless, Zillmann (1988) argued that good moods could be maintained or enhanced by consumption of media messages that are minimally involving, have a high behavioral affinity to positive mood, or are highly pleasant.
Selective exposure theory makes predictions about the effect of mood on media preferences based on the combination of four key variables: excitatory homeostasis, intervention potential, message-behavioral affinity, and hedonic valence. Theoretically, these four variables are distinct elements, but in practice a great deal of overlap exists between components. In some cases, it may be impossible to experimentally isolate each of the variables to determine their specific effect on selectivity.
Excitatory homeostasis refers to the human tendency to seek out states of psychological arousal that are neither over- nor under-stimulating. Researchers have observed that individuals who are placed in a state of boredom tend to seek arousing media messages and avoid relaxing ones. However, individuals who are in a stressful state are more likely than bored individuals to choose calming television programming (Bryant & Zillmann 1984). Researchers have also observed this same pattern of behavior among Internet users and in surveys of television use and stressful life events.
Some communication messages require a great deal of attention to process them, whereas others capture relatively little of our cognitive resources. Intervention potential is the ability of a communication message to capture, engage, or absorb an aroused individual’s attention or cognitive-processing resources. A highly engaging message will occupy resources that might otherwise be used to dwell on a particular mood or emotion. For example, in one experiment, Bryant and Zillmann (1977) observed that viewing media content with a high intervention potential reduced the retaliation of participants against a person who annoyed them, whereas viewing minimally absorbing messages failed to reduce retaliation.
Communication that has a high degree of similarity to an individual’s emotional state is said to have message-behavioral affinity. For example, participants in one study were insulted and then given the opportunity to view television (Zillmann et al. 1980). The researchers observed that participants who were insulted tended to avoid hostile comedy laden with put-downs, presumably because of the match between their emotional state and the television program’s content. Participants in the control condition displayed no such tendency. These findings suggest that one’s emotional state is indeed a predictor of exposure to, or avoidance of, certain media content.
Presumably all communication messages can be classified on a continuum of positive and negative. Hedonic valence refers to the negative or positive quality of a message. Negative messages might be described as threatening, distressing, or sad, whereas adjectives such as uplifting, amusing, or happy might be used to describe positive messages. Theoretically, individuals in negative moods should prefer messages with a positive valence. This prediction was confirmed in an experiment by Knobloch and Zillmann (2002). They demonstrated that when participants who were in a bad mood were given the opportunity to listen to music, they chose to listen to joyful music longer than participants who were in a good mood.
Generally, in cases where the hedonic valence of a message is in opposition to an individual’s emotional state, the message should diminish the intensity of an individual’s mood. However, researchers have found notable exceptions to this rule when other variables are taken into consideration. In situations where the hedonic valence of a message is positive and its intervention potential is low, negative moods are reduced, but the opposite effect is observed when the hedonic valence is positive and the intervention potential is high (Zillmann et al. 1980).
The bulk of the selective exposure research centers on entertainment messages presented on television. Nevertheless, a few studies have attempted to apply the theory to other forms of media, especially as new technology has introduced new ways of communication. For example, researchers observed that the speed at which Internet users surfed web pages was associated with either boredom or stress. In an experiment, the researchers placed participants in either bored or stressed mood states and then unobtrusively observed their web-surfing behaviors. As predicted, bored participants tended to browse web pages more rapidly than their counterparts experiencing stressful moods (Mastro et al. 2002).
Other research has examined selective exposure to news content on the Internet This research has found that the way in which news articles are framed in lead sentences or by the type of picture that accompanies them influences time spent reading an article. Reading times increase when lead sentences emphasize conflict and suffering, or when the article is accompanied by a threatening image. In contrast, decreased reading times are associated with leads that stress factual information and economic implications, or when the article is accompanied by an innocuous image (Knobloch et al. 2003; Zillmann et al. 2004).
To date, no experimental studies have explored selective exposure to computermediated entertainment, although Bryant and Davies (2006) argued that the theory may explain exposure to new interactive media, such as video games.
Festinger (1957) originally proposed that selectivity is motivated by dissonance reduction and characterized by avoidance of information inconsistent with one’s beliefs and attitudes, and pursuit of messages that are consistent with those cognitions. Field studies generally supported the theory, but laboratory experiments produced inconclusive results. These inconsistencies have generally been attributed to the methodological shortcomings of early experiments. Indeed, the latest meta-analysis of the cognitive dissonance literature generated evidence in support of the theory’s assumptions (D’Alessio & Allen 2002).
In recent years, psychologists have produced the bulk of the current research and theorizing has introduced new explanations for why dissonance occurs, including threats to positive self-image, and personal behavior that is inconsistent with normative standards. Although scholars are still divided on this issue, it is clear that the inclusion of such moderating variables in experimental designs has confirmed the viability of cognitive dissonance theory as an explanation for selective exposure.
Communication research, in areas such as consumer behavior, journalism, and health communication, centers on the demonstration of selectivity as a result of dissonance reduction. For instance, one study of newspaper readers found that positively framed articles about a politician were more likely to be read by his or her supporters than by opponents, and this tendency was magnified among those who tended to read in a superficial manner, had little interest in politics, or had dogmatic viewpoints. However, articles containing negative information were equally read by supporters and opponents (Donsbach 1991). Research in advertising and health communication tends to focus on identifying variables that make a message more persuasive. For example, marketing efforts are often designed to reduce post-purchase dissonance, and health messages may induce dissonance to reduce smoking or promote condom use.
Spontaneous And Telic Hedonism
The basic assumption that individuals seek out specific communication choices in an effort to maximize positive emotional states and minimize negative emotions has been questioned. For instance, individuals may choose to view a sad film, or listen to loud, angry music, engaging in seemingly counter-hedonistic behavior. Christ and Medoff (1984) observed that annoyed individuals, rather than using media to alter their moods, avoided viewing television altogether when given the choice. To account for such situations, Zillmann (2000) introduced the notions of spontaneous and telic hedonism. At times, it may be emotionally functional to immediately alter one’s mood state by selecting media that relieves one of negative feelings. In these cases, individuals engage in spontaneous hedonism and can be observed to use media in an effort to manage their moods.
However, other situations require that individuals postpone the immediate gratification of altering their mood state, in favor of loftier goals, or more pressing needs. In such cases selection of communication choices may be counter-hedonistic in the short run, but conform to theoretical assumptions in the long run. In an experiment, KnoblochWesterwick and Alter (2006) plotted preference for online news articles over time and observed that media preferences changed as individuals came closer to the time when they would ostensibly meet someone who had antagonized them earlier in the experiment. This study suggests that spontaneous and telic hedonism is an important variable to consider; however, aside from this single experiment, no study has specifically addressed the time variable in a selective exposure paradigm.
Informational utility refers to situations where information is sought out to reduce uncertainty. Whereas the hedonistic assumptions of selective exposure theory are particularly suited for explaining consumption of entertainment media, these assumptions may have less application in cases where media use is motivated by a need or desire for information. Selective exposure to communication that is motivated by informational utility is conceptually distinct from selective exposure behavior designed to reinforce pre-existing beliefs or conditions (as in cognitive dissonance theory).
However, at this time, studies have not explicitly isolated and tested the theoretical notion of informational utility to determine its effect on selectivity, although it should be noted that much of the information-seeking behavior described in the health communication literature, for example, may fall under the purview of informational utility. It may be increasingly difficult for researchers in the modern media era to experimentally separate the informational utility of media from its emotional utility. For instance, exposure to so-called edutainment and infotainment may be driven by hedonistic motivations as well as the informational utility of such media.
Gender And Personality Variables
Research in selective exposure has accumulated to the point where basic assumptions of the theory are being expanded to include how gender and personality traits interact with basic theoretical components. For example, greater support for the hedonistic assumptions of selective exposure theory has been observed among females than males. Some of the gender differences observed in earlier research can be explained by differences in how men and women respond to conflict. In one study, researchers led participants to believe that they would have an opportunity to retaliate against a person who had annoyed them. In anticipation of the conflict, women were observed viewing positive news articles in an apparent effort to reduce negative moods. However, men were more likely to choose negative news content, apparently in an effort to enhance their aggressive feelings (KnoblochWesterwick & Alter 2006).
Research has also found that personality variables predict media preference. Much of the communication literature has examined how certain traits, such as authoritarianism or rebelliousness, are predictive of media preferences. However, comparatively few studies have considered how higher-order personality variables are related to selective exposure to communication messages. These higher-order variables are derived from numerous personality traits and are thought to express the most fundamental commonalities and differences among individuals. One study in this area, for example, observed correlations between higher-order personality variables and preference for certain genres of media (Weaver 1991). Individuals who scored high on the trait of neuroticism also displayed preferences for downbeat music and informative news programs, but tended to avoid light-hearted comedies and action programs. On the other hand, individuals who scored high on the trait of psychoticism expressed strong preferences for violent horror movies, but tended to display less interest in comedies.
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