To today’s student of mass media, it should be obvious that media gatekeepers go to great lengths to cater to their customers. But it has not always been that way. Actually, for most of their history, mass media have appeared to-be convinced that the whims, values, and intentions of the senders were of greater importance than those of the receivers
Until the 1930s and 1940s, the prevalent view of mass communication held that every media message was a direct and powerful stimulus that would elicit an immediate and predictable
response. Audiences, members of “mass society,” were presumed to share uniform characteristics, and to be motivated by biological and environmental factors over which they had little control. No interference was seen between the messages and the receivers, so a clear-cut, simplistic message would have a clear-cut, simplistic response. A model of this process, which looked just like our earlier figure 1.1, went by the name of the hypodermic theory or
bullet theory, because the contents of the needle or rifle (in this case, the messages) were thought to get transferred lock, stock, barrel, and bullet directly into the receiver. The theories were based more on intuition than on research evidence; social science research was rather rustic, and Tittle empirical evidence of mass media effects had been accumulated. Besides, massive propaganda efforts during the First World War, coupled with numerous examples of successful advertising campaigns, seemed to be highly effective in mobilizing public opinion and consumer behavior.
It may be significant that this basic stimulus-response model is still accepted by many critics of the mass media, who assume the media to be extremely powerful Institutions, and media consumers to be woefully naive and malleable. Such critics seem to believe that Audiences Rte ruled by instincts, “human nature,” and irrational forces over which they have little control, while media gatekeepers are seen as inherently manipulative and somehow much more clever than their audiences
Individual Diffrences Theory
To believe in the bullet theory is to maintain that the audience is made up of an enormous, undifferentiated mass of humanity-that there are no differences among the individuals who constitute that audience. In the extreme view, each member of that audience would have to react identically to the mass mediated messages. In the narrower view, .biological or environmental factors would at the very least bring about a largely undifferentiated response to the media.
By the 1930s psychologists and social psychologists were having serious doubts about the degree to which Instincts and . basic “human nature” accounted for reactions to media messages. Study after study had concluded that there were some intervening variables at work; something or some things.besides the message and the .render’s intentions accounted for differing reactions to media. Researchers were learning that individuals possessed widely divergent psychological mechanisms. Media content, while capable of activating these mechanisms, did not do 80 indiscriminately. For instance, 8S illustrated in figure 3.1, it made a difference how motivated the audience members were; how predisposed to accept or reject a given message; how much native intelligence and formal schooling they had; how sensitive, moody, fearful, prejudiced, or generally perceptive they were
In order to investigate psychological differences among media audience members, social psychologists in laboratory settings carefully manipulated messages and media environments on different “types” of receivers. The research literature came to be filled with fascinating but tentative conclusions about communication effects. For instance, research on persuasion .concentrated on what types of people are most likely to be influenced by what kinds of messages. Researchers raised such
questions as, whether one side or both sides of the argument should be presented, whether the messages should be presented clearly and explicitly or vaguely and implicitly, whether fear rather than rational arguments should be used, and whether the
climactic argument should be given at the beginning or at the end of the presentation. Persuasion research also included careful studies on perception, or audiences’ tendencies to misconstrue arguments to suit their own prior beliefs or stereotypes. Other studies dealt with source credibility, attempting to discover what type of person was most likely to be highly influential in persuading people. To cite conclusions from these studies would fill volumes, but a couple of generalizations can help us to appreciate the work of social psychologists from this period.
One of the most intriguing findings of the post-World War I social scientists was that different personality variables resulted in different reactions to the same stimuli. At the core of this is the concept of perception: how Our values, needs, beliefs, and attitudes influence which stimuli we will select from the environment and how we will interpret those stimuli
Selective attention or exposure, selective perception, and selective retention are highly interrelated psychological characteristics, often lumped under the single term, selective perception, and explain how people confront the content of the mass media. As DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach concluded, they are all intervening psychological mechanisms ,that have entered into the stimulus-response model of mass communication. From a multiplicity of available content, individual members of the audience selectively utilize messages, particularly if they are “related to their interests, consistAnt with their attitudes, congruent with their beliefs, and supportive of their values.
Selective Attention. People tend to expose themselves to various messages or stimuli in accordance with their existing opinions and interests, and to avoid communications not in accordance with such opinions and interests. Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to attend Democratic rallies, read Democratic literature, and discuss Democratic policies. People who rare predisposed toward sports and religion are far more likely to watch sports or religious programming than are those not so predisposed. Usually this kind of selective attention occurs because people are consciously or subconsciously analyzing the weaknesses of belief-discrepant viewpoints in order to strengthen their basic beliefs, arguments, or even values. This kind of exposure is not normal, and not without some pain. True open mindedness, despite the lip service played to it in a democratic, libertarian society, is extremely hard work for most-people:
Selective Perception. Once individuals have consciously sought out those media which support their. predispositions, or even if they have accidentally exposed themselves to general information which does not support those predispositions, those audience members “read into” the messages whatever suits their needs. It is the “I told you so” proposition, as confirmation of any and all beliefs, opinions, and values is readily forthcoming
Selective perception also describes the tendencies to perceived and misinterpret persuasive messages in accordance with the receivers’ predispositions, by distorting the message in directions favorable to those inclinations. Classic examples of this tendency were found in the “Mr. Biggot experiments,” in which prejudiced people twisted the meaning of anti prejudice propaganda so it ended up reinforcing their existing biases
Selective Retention:Sometimes it is difficult to delineate between selective perception and selective retention or recall, because people are far more likely to retain those messages they consciously perceived than those they consciously rejected. Factors influencing selective retention include the saliency or importance of the message for later utility, the extent to which the message coincided with predispositions, the intensity of the message, the means by which it was transmitted, and sometimes even the extent to which receivers strongly disagree with the message. For instance, we tend to remember lecture materials if our instructors mention that we will be accountable for them on the next quiz; we remember the finer points of an argument advocating liberal spending policies if we have long been in favour of such policies; and we remember a message better if it has been presented in a basic, readily graspable, and emphatic manner. In addition, selective recall also involves the distortion of what is remembered. Research on televised presidential debates showed that over time, viewers associated arguments with their favorite, candidate, regardless of who originally made the argument
Inevitably we are exposed to information contrary to our basic opinions. “Accidental exposure” influences us. Television entertainment shows, movies, our regular newspapers, and magazines all contain information that is peripheral to our basic
interests, but which nevertheless in us