How the selective exposure bias predicts negative opinions on diversity

Most people prefer to consume information aligned with their pre-existing beliefs rather than confronting views, even if it comes at a personal cost. Recent research shows this bias can affect their future opinions on diversity.

Jonas De keersmaecker
Katharina Schmid

Research by Esade’s Jonas De keersmaecker and Katharina Schmid has found that the presence of selective exposure bias (the act of choosing to consume information aligned with pre-existing beliefs) can be used to predict negative beliefs over time, with those opposed to diversity more likely to strengthen their opinions.  

And, while the study found that people in favor of diversity were more likely to select material which confirmed their views, the bias they displayed did not lead to any changes in future beliefs.  

The results suggest that negative opinions originate from a bias which leads people to avoid consuming more positive information over time, rather than ideological differences

The study of Spanish citizens, which appeared in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, provides important context to the debate around cognitive bias and its impact on political attitudes. It also highlights the obstacles organizations face in the successful implementation of diversity policies and initiatives. 

Aligning beliefs

Previous research has confirmed the existence of selective exposure bias and found it to be stronger in political issues than other areas. Following their study, De keersmaecker and Schmid argue that it also plays a major role in shaping diversity beliefs. Beliefs are a strong driver of behavior. When people seek out newspapers and current affairs shows that support their beliefs, it helps to justify their actions and choices.  

Negative opinions on diversity originate from a bias which leads people to avoid consuming positive information

There is also a social aspect at play. Political views are often shared by friends and family; consuming information which justifies these views helps people to align and maintain their thinking and behavior with those close to them. 

However, there is a danger that seeking out information to confirm political beliefs could lead to increasing levels of extremism. When people lack trust in the mainstream news sources which challenge their views, they can somewhat ironically turn to news and information from unverified and unreliable sources. When consumed online, content algorithms can lead people to increasingly extreme views. 

The price of change

While researchers agree that the potential for extremism exists in selective exposure bias, little has been known about its impact on future beliefs or behaviors — until now.  

De keersmaecker and Schmid analyzed the effect on the diversity beliefs of Spanish citizens using data collected at two points, five months apart.  

The participants were offered a cash incentive to assess what would motivate them to read opposing views. First, they were asked if they were for or against increasing help to refugees entering Spain. They were then offered a cash prize of €10 to read and answer questions based on material that challenged their opinion, or €7 to read and answer questions based on material which confirmed it. Five months later, their diversity beliefs were tested again to control any changes over time

Predicting bias

Unlike previous studies, rather than presenting participants with content that either confirmed or challenged their beliefs, no content was presented. They were simply asked what they were prepared to read in light of the incentive offered.  

This way, the researchers were able to measure the effects of people’s predisposition to consume biased information, rather than the impact of the information itself.  

People will affirm their beliefs by choosing confirmatory information, even if it comes at a personal cost

The results revealed that most people will affirm their beliefs by choosing confirmatory information, even if it comes at a personal cost. The researchers were also able to predict the future views of participants who displayed an anti-diversity stance. However, displaying a selective exposure bias did not impact the future views of those who were pro-diversity. 

The findings, say the researchers, highlight the need to understand the consequences, rather than presence, of bias in the political arena

Impact on diversity initiatives

The study by De keersmaecker and Schmid confirms not only that people display a determination to avoid consuming information which does not align with their current beliefs, but also that this avoidance has an impact on future negative beliefs.  

The research offers some important lessons for organizations who want to improve success of diversity policies and initiatives. To avoid this refusal to engage, De keersmaecker and Schmid suggest that pro-diversity initiatives should be designed and presented in a way which ensures groups with opposing beliefs come together, rather than allowing them to form their own self-confirming circles. 

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