Selective perception theory, also known as selective exposure, is the theory that an audience’s interpretation of media is dependent on their personal beliefs. The public willingly chooses to consume media that aligns with their principals. If they consume media that does not reflect their ideas, the audience will view and construe the medium’s content in a frame that supports their original ideals. In this way, every piece of content portrayed in a medium will be placed in an agreeable stance with the viewer’s belief or be ignored.
This theory was originally established by Paul Lazarsfeld under the Bureau of Applied Social Research in the Columbia School. Lazarsfeld was an American sociologist who wrote The People’s Choice in 1948, a book on how voters determine their presidential candidate. Co-authored with Bernard Berelson, Lazarsfeld claimed that the media has little influence over the public’s opinion in voting (Danesi 2013). When a person views media content, only the ideas that fit preconceptions are entertained, while counter-claims are disregarded. Lazarsfeld’s and Elihu Katz’s research in 1955 focused on if and to what extent can a medium’s content about a candidate change the beliefs of a voter. In the end, it was discovered that viewers supported the political party information that fit their previously-held ideals. These results showed that a person’s interpretation of media content is based around the values of their social class or group (Danesi 2013).
Hadley Cantril also had a similar concept. In his minimal-effects model, Cantril established selective exposure and selective retention with controlled experiments and surveys. Selective retention is the concept of people retaining messages that confirm their previously-held attitudes. In this way, minimal-effect researchers also believed that mass media reinforces preconceptions, instead of altering or forming new ones (Campbell 2017).
In the 21st century, this phenomenon of selective perception impacting media interpretation is still present. In 2018, Lauren Feldman and other professors studied selectivity in the case of choosing how to consume media: the news versus regular entertainment. In order to judge a person’s engagement in politics-oriented news, Feldman and colleagues developed two layers of selectivity, one being partisan selectivity. Partisan selectivity is the concept of people preferring messages that support their preconceptions and beliefs, which is referred to as pro-attitudinal content, over ideas that conflict their personal ethics, known as counter-attitudinal messages (Feldman 2018).
When choosing news over entertainment, citizens who choose news consume content that is already similar to their own conclusions. This is partly due to the fact that it requires less effort to consume ideals that match preconceptions than to cognitively interpret and sift through counter-attitudinal messages (Feldman 2018). Moreover, when choosing news, the public will view issues that relate to their own personal concerns. A simple example of such would be a marine biologist choosing to watch a news report about influxes in the crab population off the North-eastern coast. Therefore, selective exposure is seen when audiences choose to consume media content that is homogenous to their own principles.
Feldman also highlights the impact social classes and groups have on media content. During the consumption of messages in a news-based medium, one must also consider the strength of their original ideologies (Feldman 2018). In other words, a strongly-committed person in an audience will seek out and select themes that are like their supported partisan ideals. One can consider the 2016 United States Presidential Election. Throughout the campaign, an intensely devoted Republican could possibly choose to only watch news networks that advocate and support Republican nominee Donald Trump. Meanwhile, a devout Democrat may choose to watch pro-Hillary Clinton programs and ignore content that promotes Nominee Trump.
In both cases, a person may select a certain network to consume because it has like-minded values while disregarding the content that is counter-attitudinal.
Citizens react in this way due to the fact that humans naturally become members of interpretive communities (Danesi 2013). As social creatures, humans settle into groups, such as churches, neighborhoods, unions, classes, and more. Members of these groups tend to have homogenous notions, especially if they are raised in this group. A member’s ideals are then shaped by the tenets of that community. With this setting, a main influence on selective exposure is an opinion leader. An opinion leader is expected to consumer content across media and then make deliberate decisions, these opinions are then given to the members in the community. For example, in selective exposure, if an opinion leader were to promote CNN over Fox, then members of the community will be more likely to selectively consume CNN.
Along with the example of the 2016 Presidential election, selective perception theory is present in many ways in the 21st century. While many recognize an importance in retaining both sides of an argument, selective perception theory will always influence the interpretation of a medium’s content.
Campbell, R., Martin, C. R., & Fabos, B. (2017). Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age 11th Edition. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Danesi, M. (2013). Media Effects. Encyclopedia of Media and Communication, 429-434. doi: 10.3138/9781442695528.
Feldman, L., Wojcieszak, M., Stroud, N.J., & Bimber, B. (2018). Explaining Media Choice: The Role of Issue-Specific Engagement in Predicting Interest-Based and Partisan Selectivity. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 62(1), 109-130. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2017.1375502
Image Attribution: “Catalá: Paul Felix Lazarsfeld” by Miremahe CC 4.0; “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during United States presidential election 2016” by Krassotkin and Gage Skidmore CC 3.0
Written by Tamia Williams, 2018