Do you ever get your news online? When you do, which would you prefer: a site that only shows you articles that come from a perspective you agree with, or one that shows some articles with a point of view that directly contradicts your beliefs? Before you jump to an answer, it might help to know a little about the research on the topic. To begin with, no matter what we may like to believe, there is a certain natural tendency to prefer to be exposed to things we agree with and to dismiss or ignore things we disagree with. Psychologists call this selective exposure, and you probably can quickly come up with three times you have personally experienced this. While this may help with our day-to-day happiness, it can have broader negative consequences, such as the polarization of opinions in our society. If no one is listening to dissenting opinions, then no debate or compromise is possible.

As it becomes easier and easier to tailor one's exposure to news, by reading only the magazines and blogs that share your point of view, or only watching television channels or programs that reiterate what you already believe, this problem can only get worse. One way to ameliorate this natural tendency is to find a way to encourage people to expose themselves to articles from the other side. In an upcoming article in the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), two scientists from the University of Michigan, Sean Munson and Paul Resnick, asked people to look at lists of political articles--such as those you might find at a news aggregator site like Google News or Digg--and decide how much they liked it. Their main focus was how much people liked lists with different proportions of links in the list that agreed or disagreed with the reader's political beliefs.

Munson and Resnick hypothesized there could be three different kinds of people. The first are what they call "diversity seeking," and these individuals are happiest when there is an even balance of attitude-consistent and attitude-inconsistent links in the list. Although they didn't measure it, I would suspect that these people would score high on the "Need for Cognition" test. People who score high on Need-for-Cognition enjoy mental challenges, and as anyone who has read an article from "across the aisle" knows, it can be extremely mentally challenging. The second type of person is what they call "challenge-averse", though perhaps a less loaded term would be "diversity-sensitive". In fact, given the research on selective exposure, one might expect the majority of people to fall into this category. The greater proportion of attitude-consistent links in a list, the happier these "challenge-averse" individuals should be with list. Munson and Resnick called the third kind of person "support-seeking": these people have some threshold number of attitude-consistent links they want to see to be happy, but beyond that are indifferent as to whether the remaining links agree with their views or not.

Unsurprisingly, everyone was unhappy with the list when all of the links came from sources that disagreed with their political views---if you're conservative, imagine getting a list of links from MSNBC and the Huffington Post, and if you're liberal, imagine a list entirely made up of Fox News and the Drudge Report. However, when given lists of links that all completely agreed with their political beliefs, about 25% of their sample were just as dissatisfied as when all of the links disagreed with their beliefs: these are the "diversity seekers." To find out if there were any "support seekers", Munson and Resnick changed the length of the list; support seekers should be insensitive to the total number of links, because they just want to see a certain number of agreeable links and don't care after that. "Challenge averse" individuals, however, care more about the proportion of belief-congruent links compared to incongruent links. In their sample, everyone cared about the proportion more than the absolute number, meaning they didn't find any evidence for support seeking behavior.

Munson and Resnick also manipulated the presentation, by highlighting the agreeable links and moving all of the agreeable links to the top, but unfortunately neither change in the way the links were shown led the challenge-averse individuals to be more tolerant of lists that included links that disagreed with their views. Of course, there are many other ways to encourage people to expand their horizons and consider other news sources---perhaps, for instance, by calling them "challenge-averse"! So, now that you've read this post, what do you think? Are you "diversity-seeking" or "challenge-averse"?


About the Author

Winter Mason Ph.D.

Winter Mason is a social psychologist working at Yahoo! Research in New York City.

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