Frank J. Batavick | Columnist
I have a friend of forty years whose politics are diametrically opposed to mine. That would be fine if he didn’t insist on e-mailing me opinion pieces and news articles that articulate and support his way of thinking to the exclusion of all else. When I protest and fact-check the pieces and discover that they would cause Pinocchio’s nose to grow to the size of a Buick, any statistics and facts I proffer don’t impress him in the least. My friend simply tells me that my thinking has become muddled by what I choose to read and watch.
Social scientists have long been intrigued by this phenomenon. In 1960 Columbia University researcher Joseph Klapper studied the effects of mass communication. For Klapper there was no simple cause and effect via media, no silver bullet. In today’s world, that means a TV ad for Jeb Bush doesn’t automatically cause voters to decide to support him. The same goes for a Dodge Ram 2500 commercial or a Heineken ad. That’s because of three selective processes we all employ to avoid cognitive dissonance, a term used to describe the discomfort of having to juggle conflicting points of view. No one welcomes this internal battle. We all crave a sense of equilibrium, so we make choices to select and support one candidate for governor, one brand of truck, one beer or football team, etc.
We first deploy selective exposure by only exposing ourselves to those TV and radio shows, Internet sites, and newspaper and magazine articles that agree with our attitudes and interests. Most progressives don’t watch Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh, and most conservatives ignore MSNBC or newspaper columnists like E.J. Dionne. They aren’t worth the dissonance, though they are sometimes worth the entertainment value if we are curious how each side is going to spin the latest crisis.
Selective perception comes into play when we are unwillingly exposed to material that goes against our interests and beliefs. Some will choose to ignore it while others will recast or interpret the content to support their way of thinking. By almost any metric (corporate profits, exports, the number of new jobs, the S&P 500), the economy has improved since its drastic condition in 2009. Yet skeptics either “misremember” the state of affairs that the President inherited or they try to shift the discussion to the size of the federal debt and the soaring cost of Social Security and Medicare. Oh, and Benghazi.
The third tactic to avoid cognitive dissonance is the selective retention of information. Unsympathetic content is either quickly forgotten or remembered differently. The climate change debate provides a good example. Despite the evidence of melting Arctic sea ice (the loss of some 209,495 square miles since 1981), some will only remember hearing that sea ice has grown since the record low observed in 2010.
A recent book by Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie reinforces Klapper’s theory. In Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, the authors recount an experiment they conducted in Colorado. In dark blue Boulder, they asked a diverse group of avowed progressives to discuss three controversial topics: climate change, affirmative action, and same-sex civil unions. The researchers presented these same topics to a group of conservatives in bright crimson Colorado Springs. They discovered that discussions in both groups moved participants farther to their respective left and right positions. That’s because talking to like-minded people creates an echo chamber in which folks believe they are dealing with the full universe of information that’s available. And when researchers introduced data and evidence that ran counter to group beliefs, it only served to harden positions. People challenged the evidence by counterintuitively asking, “Why would you say this if I wasn’t right?”
Lest you despair, people can be encouraged to change their calcified positions if one of their own leads the way. This is called the “Nixon to China” approach. Nixon was a strident opponent of Communism, having earned his stripes during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1948. When he normalized relations with the Red Chinese in 1972, conservative attitudes toward China changed.
Imagine if the son of Cuban immigrants, Senator Marco Rubio, and not President Obama had sought to normalize relations with Cuba. What a dent that would have made in some people’s armor of selectivity.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.