Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Selective Exposure: Calling Inconvenient News Irrelevant

Toward an intergalactic natural history of blindered thinking

“You’re unbelievable. You won’t even consider other interpretations. Why do you have to be so incredibly closed-minded??!!”

You know the feeling, talking to someone who refuses to think, to wonder, to doubt. You know it personally and you know it publically, watching Teflon-coated political idiots dismiss inconvenient truths as inconsequential. 

It’s maddening, but it’s far from rare. Social psychologists call it selective exposure, a term covering everything from only relying on news sources that agree with you to that joke about getting hard of hearing in old age becoming a welcome excuse for not listing to your spouse’s complaints. 

We all engage in selective exposure and for the same reasons. Truly hearing challenges to our assumptions is freaking exhausting! One’s whole metabolism recoils and bridles at the hassle and cost of having to remodel our beliefs to fit new information. We’re daunted by what in economics are called “transaction costs” the costs of swapping out one investment for another, in this case investments in certain assumptions about what’s true. 

Admit it. You know the feeling from both sides—from being frustrated with other people’s closed-mindedness and being frustrating to others for yours. To some extent we all speed-read our critics, we all translate “that’s threatening” into “that’s unimportant,” “I’m confused” into “You’re not talking sense,” anything to avoid the costly work of re-evaluation.

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That we all do it is no reason to just live-and-let live, forgiving everyone their unwillingness to trespass into disaffirming ideas. We engage in selective exposure to different degrees. 

Political psychology is a hot topic right now, and we’re discovering marked differences between Republicans and Democrats in their exercise of selective exposure. For a fascinating, bold yet balanced survey of this research check out “The Republican Brain” by journalist Chris Moody.

Can you guess which party exercises more selective exposure? Both parties accuse the other of it, but then Assad accuses his opponents of greed and theft. There’s no better way to deflect a fair accusation than to accuse your accuser.  

Empirical studies provide very strong evidence that self-declared conservatives and Republicans engage in significantly more selective exposure.

Is selective exposure a bad thing? It depends on circumstances. Think of how useful it is for marshaling troops to fight for justice. We wouldn’t have wanted Allied troops exploring the pros and cons of Nazism.  There are times when we’re best off hunkering down closed-mindedly. Dedication requires ignoring opposing positions. I’ll argue this isn’t one of them. With a world as fast changing as ours, we need more open-mindedness.

My approach to psychology is an unusual one, based on my 18 years research on the origins of life with Harvard/Berkeley’s biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon, research not just into the chemistry at the origins, but a new kind of behavior that emerge with life. 

As a first-pass we’d argue that physiochemical behavior is direct cause and effect, differences causing differences. Setting aside quantum behavior which remains mysterious to physicists, at whatever scale from atoms to Stars, a difference in thing X’s behavior causes a difference in Y’s behavior. Physiochemical behavior is determinate and predictable.  No matter how many times you repeat the interaction, the change in thing X will make the same change in Y. 

Interpretive behavior starts with life, captured neatly in Gregory Bateson’s description of interpretation or information as “A difference that makes a difference” which is three differences since the second one is a pun. With living beings like us, a sensed difference makes a response difference. Together they make a difference to whether you continue to sense and respond.

For example, you sense a difference between red and green lights which makes a difference to whether you stop or go which makes a difference to whether you stay alive, in the interpretation game, sensing and responding. 

Down to the first living beings we see interpretive behavior, differences that make a difference, for example a bacterium sensing a difference in glucose concentrations that make a difference in how its flagella move, bringing it closer to the glucose which makes a difference to whether the bacterium lives.

Interpretive behavior is not nearly as predictable as physiochemical behavior.  It evolves over time.  Your sensed and response differences are general differences, not specific and determinate (hence not causing but making a difference), for example different hues of red and green, different stops and starts, different consequences depending on traffic, or in the case of bacterium, different sugars, different movement toward the sugar, different effects on survival.

Of course, not every interpretive behavior has life and death implications. You might sense and respond to differences in a game of chess that don’t have any bearing on whether you live or die. 

About 16 years into our research, I noticed that our origins of life research yielded me a scientific definition of love. To me love is doing dedicated work to maintain that which we depend upon. You can tell what a creature loves by the particular work it does. Of all the things you do, for example you tend to do the things that keep you going, things that maintain those things and beings you depend upon. We know what you depend upon by how well you’d be if they disappeared. 

It’s easy to map this definition onto your love life. You do things to keep your partner happy because if you’re partner disappeared you’d be unwell at least for a while. 

It’s easy to map this definition onto addictions too. The addict works hard to maintain access to his drug because cold turkey would make him unwell.

To me the difference between love and addiction lies in our prediction about whether it will be good for us in the long run. We say “He loves his wife” and “He’s addicted to cocaine” not the other way around, because we think the dedicated work of maintaining access his wife, but not the cocaine will be good for him in the long run.

The dedicated work we do is in those sensing and response differences, which are what we think of as a creature’s living adaptive behavior. We love doing well, staying in the interpretation game—that’s our instinct to survive as expressed in our evolving behavior. 

But we also love our sensed and response differences. That is we’re committed to them, doing dedicated work to maintain them.  For example with traffic lights, it’s not just that we keep our eyes peeled to see them. It’s that we do ongoing work to regenerate our eyes faster than they would otherwise degenerate. If you want to know that dedicated work, check out how quickly eyes degenerate at death.

We love our eyes. We even love traffic lights. Our habits show that we’re dependent upon them. If one day you awoke blind or to a world without traffic lights, you’d be pretty bent out of shape.

We also love the absence of certain sensible differences, our ability to ignore differences we bet don’t make a difference. We love it when the neighbor’s car alarm stops, or when people stop nagging us to attend to what only they think is important.

We can imagine sensing and responding to all differences. We just can’t possibly do it.  All organisms attend to some differences and ignore the rest. Selective exposure is life’s inescapable state. So little mind, so much to attend to. 

Omniscience is a fantasy of our omni-somnience, our ability to dream of absolutely any possibility, an ability we humans gained through language. A marshmallow man, a dancing rock, an omniscient God—we couldn’t dream this stuff up without the language to describe it. Language makes us as creatively visionary and stubbornly delusional as we are, dreaming and denying, falling in love with some sensible differences and loving ignoring other differences, legends in our own minds, like the idiot politician who won’t face facts.  

Listening to challenging positions is a kind of infidelity to our beloved sensed and response differences. People ask you to weigh the evidence differently, sensing and responding differently than you already do. You’re in love with or addicted to your sense and response differences. They took you this far. 

The psychologist Stephen Kull notes that “The instinct to survive is strong, but the instinct to alleviate fear is stronger.” This is where selective gets us into trouble. We love our selective interpretative behaviors so much that we fail to see that they’re leading us away from survival. 

I’ll end with an intergalactic speculation. The difference between physiochemical and living behavior would be the same anywhere in the universe, and language would make the visionary/delusional difference anywhere too. 

In Denial, a recent book by Varki and Brower, the authors speculate that other creatures might have acquired language but didn’t because they never learned how to be as slippery as we are and hence were able to dream of their own deaths. They never gained the capacity for selective exposure we have that enables us to ignore the inconvenient truth that we are going to die. 

I don’t buy it. Language is inherently slippery. It would turn any organisms that acquired it into adaptive visionary genius and maladaptive myopic fools.

I speculate that elsewhere in the universe other species would have gained the power of language. It would be a late trait, built on millennia of prior “unintelligent” life, which would have accumulated sequestered as fossil fuel deposits like ours. 

Like us these languaged species would likely have discovered how to use the fossil fuels and long before they thought through the consequences of using them. Like us, they’d find the truth about those consequences inconvenient denying with selective exposure the truth, much as we do.

Of course this is speculative, but it is interesting to imagine that our climate crisis is a cosmic test of languaged species’ capacity for selective exposure. Chances are good many didn’t pass the test. Some may have past it. For us, the test isn’t over yet. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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