Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Belief and the Brain

How Do We “Choose” Our News?

What do we believe if not the media? Our own existing beliefs, it turns out.

Posted Aug 01, 2017

This article was co-written with Michelle Dexter, Ph.D., Director of Training at Behavioral Associates of Los Angeles

With limitless sources and choices of news and media it seems possible to connect anywhere, anytime, and to anyone. But what if being connected to the entire world via television and the Internet wasn’t actually broadening your views? What if the way in which most of us consume news media led to a greater isolation and political polarization? Many experts believe this is the case, but it doesn’t have to be (Davis & Dunaway, 2016; Garrett & Resnick, 2011). We can have control over how we interact with this information and can change our habits. Similar to any other change, it starts with understanding what we are doing now.

First, let’s consider how most of us choose a news station, channel, blog, or website. Daniel Kahneman (2011), winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, discusses two distinct ways of decision making in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. One way is slow, deliberate, effortful, and requires focused energy and attention. The other way is rapid, automatic, intuitive and effortless. Although we all want to believe we make the majority of our decisions in a deliberate way, based on logic and careful thought, the reality is that our brain prefers the path of least resistance. Cue the rapid and automatic system. Yes, it’s true. We make the majority of our decisions, including those about our media preferences, using intuition rather than logic (Kahneman, 2011).

Why would we “choose” news content based on a reflex rather than a well-thought-out reaction? One answer is: to decrease cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort people experience when one piece of information being considered conflicts with another (Aronson, 2008). Thus, when faced with ease or discomfort, we choose ease!

The other motivation is a search for something or someone to believe (and it sure is not what we see and hear in the news). The Pew Research Center conducted a study and found that 66 percent of respondents believed news stories were inaccurate, 77 percent believed organizations were biased, and 80 percent believed news organizations were influenced by powerful individuals and companies (Pew Research Center, 2011). So what, or whom, do we believe if not the media? Our own existing beliefs, it turns out.

There is a term for this: confirmation bias (Aronson, 2008). Although our initial intent may have been to learn something new when tuning into news media, what we trust and remember is motivated by a preference to confirm what we already believe. This includes biases, stereotypes, attitudes, and previously learned knowledge (Aronson, 2008).

The main disadvantage of simply relying on this intuitive way of engaging with news media is that it limits exposure to divergent perspectives and points of view. In addition, current technologies filter and isolate preferred viewpoints based on previous preferences (Davis & Dunaway, 2016). The good news is, simply being exposed to a diverse range of news can change this pattern. This type of exposure to various perspectives and news media could also lead to increased tolerance and a broadening of one’s own perspective (Garrett & Resnick, 2011).

So how do we make our world bigger rather than smaller? How do we turn ourselves into motivated, mindful and deliberate consumers? How do we engage with all of our peers, not just the ones with similar beliefs? First, be willing to do things differently. It takes some time and energy. Below are some suggestions: 

  • Recognize that we often make decisions using our rapid intuitive thinking system.
  • Identify and spell out your current biases, beliefs and stereotypes.
  • Adopt a curious and nonjudgmental stance to media outlets that differ from your typical repertoire.
  • Be willing to experience doubt, strain, and effort as you juxtapose this information with your current beliefs and knowledge .

With these strategies employed, we can all do our part to create a more tolerant culture both online and in real life.

References

Aronson, E. (2008). The Social Animal (10th ed). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Davis, N.T., & Dunaway, J.L. (2016). Party polarization, media choice, and mass partisan-ideological sorting. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80, 272-297.

Garrett, R. K., & Resnick, P. (2011). Resisting Political Fragmentation on the Internet. Daedalus, 140(4), 108-120.

Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pew Research Center (2011). Press Widely Criticized, But Trusted More than Other Information Sources. Views of the News Media.